Fire and Ice
A Young Adult Imprint of Melange Books, LLC
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
Kick Ass Girls of YA, Copyright 2017
Hucknall House, Copyright 2017 Alice J. Black
Rose Grants a Wish, Copyright 2017, Emily S. Deibel
Beneath the Wildflowers, Copyright 2017, D. G. Driver
The Veil is Rent, Copyright 2017, Elisabeth Hamill
The Day I Lived For Me, Copyright 2017, Liby Heily
Because I Was There, Copyright 2017, Christina Hoag
New World Coming, Copyright 2017, Mary Victoria Johnson
The First Secret, Copyright 2017, Shelley R. Pickens
Girl in a Camp, Copyright 2017, Daisy White
Names, characters, and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Published in the United States of America.
Cover Design by Caroline Andrus
[For Girls Everywhere.
Strength shows itself in many ways.]
From fantasy and steampunk, to mystery and thriller, to contemporary social issue and romance, the authors in this book have all written novels that feature strong girls as protagonists.
Not only that, these girls solve their problems using their brains, skills, reason, courage, and resiliency. In other words, they are kick ass girls, sometimes without literally kicking ass. They are heroines.
We wanted to find a way to celebrate these girls because they have the qualities that make women leaders in all aspects of life. And what better way for writers to do that than through writing!
The following pages contain short stories starring the heroines—or other characters— from the worlds depicted in our novels. They are the Kick Ass Girls of Fire and Ice YA Books.
Don’t be afraid to be a kick ass girl. Read on!
Kick Ass Authors of Fire and Ice YA Books
Table of Contents
Ruby finds herself out on another case with the other Hunters, but she gets more than she bargained for when she enters Hucknall House.
Five years after returning from Cinderland, Rose is running the most respected seamstress shop in Havenshire. Little does she know her commitment to making dresses for anyone from any district will bring her an unusual client and one crazy afternoon.
Juniper Sawfeather’s activist parents have taught her to care about the environment, and her father has told her many legends from their American Indian heritage. It takes the sighting of a brave gopher in a field of wildflowers beside her high school to jumpstart her experiences as a person sensitive to the magic hidden in nature that no one else can see.
The unforeseen consequences of magic continue when Telyn and her friends steal away the night before her handfasting to Mithrais to play music at a festival. Enjoy this sneak peek of the forthcoming book three in the Songmaker series!
Moya, like the other Models from Sortilege Falls, has the power to make people do whatever she wants, but she can’t control her parents. They’ve used her for years for their own gains, even going so far as to drug her to make her more compliant. But Moya and her boyfriend Adam have come up with a plan.
A party goes badly awry on a summer night and seventeen-year-old Jade thinks she’s partially to blame. She tells no one what happened until she realizes that silence is what she is really guilty of.
Villain. Killer. Outsider. Queen. Rumours are spreading through London like wildfire; rumours that an exiled royal has returned to stage a new rebellion. From the slums to the country palaces, sides are being formed, alliances made and broken, and events set in motion that could have catastrophic consequences…
The loss of innocence is never easy. But for a young girl who is cursed, it’s downright terrifying. Aimee’s childhood has already been a turbulent one. Still, an optimist at heart, it isn’t until fate intervenes on her 12th birthday that she becomes aware of the evil this world harbours within the confines of the human mind. Witnessing a murder for the first time is scary. Reliving it through a killer’s eyes…absolutely horrifying.
Fifteen-year-old Talia is struggling to survive the harsh reality of a refugee camp, and keep her younger brother out of trouble. When her mentor at school, Leda, suggests a way out, Talia is delighted, but she soon realises she has taken a very different path from her brother, and is forced to use all her courage to stay one step ahead.
Seventeen year-old Brynlei thinks she has uncovered all of Foxwoode Riding Academy’s dark secrets, but she is wrong. Her plans to relax and enjoy the final horseshow are cut short when she senses yet another troubling situation. (Laura Wolfe)
by Alice J. Black]
As I stepped from the car into the night, the deep hush surrounded me, a blanket that muffled not only sound but senses. My eyes flicked to Vaughn. He felt it too.
Another car door slammed and without looking I knew Delta and Luka had joined us, presenting as mere shadows in their black clothing.
“Ruby, you see anything?” Luka asked. I first met him as a trainer at The Agency, now he was Hunting right along with me.
I shook my head. I was the closest to Hucknall House, the hand that gripped the painted black bars of the gate white with pressure, and my head so close I could smell the rust. Nothing moved save for the wind that whipped the dry leaves of autumn across the overgrown driveway. Dead trees lined the ravaged tarmac path and beyond, a stone structure that used to be a fountain and beyond that, the house. It looked different to the picture I’d seen on my TAT, the devices used by The Agency to transmit information to its Hunters.
“Why did Sheila send us here?” Vaughn was referring to our boss at The Agency, the woman who ran the show and delegated orders to us, the Hunters.
“Apparently, the family who own the house are an influential one.” Delta’s voice was a deep grumble as he moved to stand beside his son.
“Wealthy, you mean.” Luka raised his brow.
“It doesn’t look like anything has moved here for weeks,” Vaughn continued, moving to stand beside me at the gate. I felt like an animal on the better side of the cage about to stumble into the worst place imaginable. Despite the fact that the house looked quiet, a deep unease had settled in me, my stomach a tight knot of apprehension.
“The information on the TAT said that the family came back from their month-long holiday—”
“A month-long holiday!” Luka interrupted. “Must be nice.”
“To find that the house was infected,” Delta finished, unperturbed.
“If it’s just cursed it shouldn’t be a problem.”
I disagreed with that point. I’d faced places with nests of cursed, the shadow demons that preceded that larger ones, and together they were difficult.
“Let’s make an assessment of the situation. Then we can deal with whatever we find.” Delta was always keen to reserve judgement until he had proof.
We each went to our respective vehicles. I’d travelled with Vaughn, and as his hand came to the small of my back, guiding me towards his truck, a tingle ran down my spine. He never failed to have that effect on me.
“Stay close tonight,” he instructed as he opened the boot of the car. I knew it was out of protectiveness rather than possessiveness because he, like me, knew that beyond the doors of that house, we could be facing anything.
My hunting kit was was held in a utility belt. I clipped it around my waist, adjusting until it was a snug fit. It contained my torch—alongside the head torch I strapped on—my salt, iron rods and a pistol loaded with rock salt. I hadn’t used a gun since my training and each time I moved, I felt the barrel sticking into my backside.
As Vaughn readied himself, I felt my eyes skim the length of his torso. His chest was as wide as his shoulders were broad, the leather jacket he wore bulging at the seams. If we weren’t in company and about to head into a house full of horrors, I might have jumped his bones. As it was, Delta’s movement signalled the end of my admiration and I reluctantly pulled my eyes away to focus on the task at hand. It was time to go into the house.
Delta took the lead, pushing the gate inwards. It gave with a groan that resounded into a creak that screamed into the night. I winced. I had no idea whether demons were sensitive to the sounds of the physical world but that noise alone had my alerts on high.
The four of us were silent as we stepped across the threshold onto the black path stretching out like a river of blood, shimmering in the crescent moon that filtered down through the bare branches of trees. I glanced back to make sure the gate remained open as the unease in my stomach spread into the rest of my body, travelling up to my chest and setting my heart pounding. My eyes slid between the trunks of the trees to our side, searching the darkness. Nothing moved.
Delta’s boots thudded the ground while beside me, Vaughn stepped silently. Only the creak of his jacket was perceptible above the wind that rushed past my ears.
We made it to the fountain and around us, the trees broke away. Delta paused at the boundary, Luka halting beside him. Together they scanned the area, still and silent, and then stepped forward, this time with more caution. They parted at the stone structure in the centre of the driveway, moving around the fountain. It came into my field of vision and I gave it a once-over. It would have been beautiful in its day, but now the three stories of stone were crumbled and cracked after being exposed to the elements, moss clinging to the remaining stagnant water of last night’s rainfall.
As Vaughn and I reached the fountain, we split too. He followed his dad while I followed Luka. Then, as if driven together by magnetic force, we came back together in the centre of the path, ready to head up into the house.
“If you can afford to go on holidays for four weeks at a time, why would you want to come back here?” Luka voiced the opinion that we were all thinking, his voice more subdued than normal.
The house was a dump, to say the least. It was bordering on derelict. Hucknall House was an old wooden structure that looked like it had been maintained up until the last fifty years, when apparently, its owners had found other uses for their money. The roof was sagging and more than one of the windows had been broken and boarded up rather than repaired. The small porch was wilting over the steps that led up to the front door, paint peeling in the reminder of flayed skin. Window boxes on the ground floor were empty of beauty and instead were filled with grime from the leaking gutters and below them, the patches of grass had browned.
“Luka, you ever seen anything like this?” Delta surveyed the scene. I heard confusion in his voice, which was something new for this man.
“No.” Luka shook his head. “Although I’ve heard of it.”
“Heard of what?” I asked without removing my eyes from the house.
“There’s a phenomenon whereby if a place is infested with demons for a length of time, it can affect the building.”
“This is all caused by demons?”
“It’s looking that way.” Luka nodded.
“And can that happen in four weeks?”
“It appears that way,” Delta confirmed. “We’ll do a sweep of the ground floor together. Stay alert.”
I nodded and glanced at Vaughn. His eyes met mine and lingered there for a moment. He was nervous although he didn’t want to say it. We all were. Stepping into an unknown location without really knowing what we were facing was terrifying to say the least, but we had each other and with these guys watching my back, I knew I’d be safe.
As a unit, we moved forward. Delta unlocked the front door with the key provided by the family—before they left for another holiday to avoid the current situation—and pushed it open. The door swung into a lobby, the parquet flooring stretched out as far as I could see, shadows hiding in the corners of the room. As I stepped through into the house, a chill coursed down my spine. My hands immediately went to my sides, reaching for my torch, and I felt like a cowboy in a western.
“It’s dark in here,” Vaughn muttered as he followed me closely.
“Lots of shadows,” Luka agreed.
“Stay close,” Delta instructed.
He took a left and we followed suit. I found myself in a huge living room, the ceilings high. Three sofas were set up at various points around a room, all focused on the fireplace in the heart of the room. A coffee table was placed on a white rug. Everything was still, and apart from the shadows that seemed to linger in places where they shouldn’t, everything looked normal. We moved through into the dining room, which held a polished table with enough seats for eight, and then through a small corridor which led into a vast kitchen. The kitchen suite was dated and dark, much like the rest of the house, but everything remained quiet. We finally came full circle back to the lobby.
“I thought the place was going to be teeming,” Vaughn spoke, his voice low. His shoulders relaxed as we stood at the base of the stairs that led into the high reaches of the house.
“Me too,” Luka admitted.
“There’s still plenty to search. I say we split into pairs to search the next floors,” Delta suggested.
Vaughn’s eyes roved to me. “Hello, partner.”
I mustered a smile despite the oppressive atmosphere that weighed down on everything. We may not have found anything yet but it was here, I could feel it.
Delta travelled up the stairs, the old wood groaning under his weight. Luka followed soon after, his feet travelling the path of the rug that took up the centre of the steps. I watched them go a few steps, as if they were wading into dark shores, before finally following. As we reached the top, they turned right and Vaughn and I turned left.
“We meet back here in five,” Delta called over his shoulder without turning back.
Vaughn looked to me. “You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
The corridor seemed to stretch on forever, the bulbs overhead so dim they barely lit our path. On either side of the hallway, doors sprung up at regular intervals, all of them closed. The doors themselves were old, faded, the wood emitting an earthly damp smell. The wallpaper that covered the hallway was beginning to peel, curling at the corners and bubbling in places in the centre. The house looked like it hadn’t been lived in for years. I half expected the ceiling to come down at any minute or the floor to go through.
“We’re going to have to check all the rooms, aren’t we?” Vaughn asked as his eyes slid to the first door.
I nodded. Whatever demon was hiding in the house could have been anywhere. I sidled up to the first door and pressed my ear against the wood. Silence. I looked at Vaughn and he knew the plan. I grabbed the door handle with my left hand, my right now bearing the long-barrelled torch, and with a deep breath I flung it open. It swung into the room in a wide arc, coming to a stop as it hit the wall on the other side with a hard thud. Like pulling off a plaster, faster was best.
We stepped into the room, Vaughn flicking on the light. It didn’t give us much illumination but it was enough to tell us that there was nothing here. A single bed was in the centre of the room, coming down from the headboard pressed against the wall. Its covers were made, pulled tight as if a maid service had been around only this morning, but the overwhelming stink of damp permeated everything. I wrinkled my nose.
“You smell it too?” he asked.
“How can a place turn to this in four weeks? I don’t get it.”
“If the rot inside is bad enough it spreads to the whole house.”
“Surely that means we’re not just dealing with curses. The shadow demons couldn’t do this.” I shook my head.
“I don’t know. I don’t think Sheila even knew.”
“So she sent us in here blind.” I couldn’t keep the contempt from my voice. Sheila and I had a rocky relationship to begin with without her pulling stunts like this. She was supposed to look after her Hunters, not send them into a death trap.
“Come on, let’s keep moving.”
I nodded, following Vaughn out of the room and pulling the door shut behind me. We continued on our way, the thin rug under foot muffling the noise of my boots. Each room we passed we checked but we found nothing more than variations of the previous room, all set up for guests to spend the night. It was hard to imagine the place in any less state of dilapidation; perhaps it was a beautiful home when it was warm and full of people and rid of the demons that were running through its interior. Maybe.
“It looks like we’re coming to the end,” Vaughn spoke as a wall came into sight. I nodded. Either something was hiding in this last room or we were going up another floor. The search of the room showed nothing but the same single bed complete with damp.
“Let’s go meet back up with the others. Time to move up, I think.”
Vaughn nodded and together, we made our way back down the corridor. His hand met mine, my fingers curling into his and I turned and smiled. I felt a little lighter now that we knew the corridor was clear. A little.
Delta and Luka were already waiting for us at the top of the stairs.
“Find anything?” Delta asked.
I shook my head. “Just a whole load of guest rooms.”
“Us too,” Luka added. “I think this place is geared up for some serious parties.”
“Nobody will be staying here anymore unless we can get rid of the demons.” Delta shook his head. “Next floor.”
Together, we trudged up the next set of stairs that led onto the landing and without another word, we split off in the same direction as last time, Vaughn and I going left.
“Same again?” he asked as we began to make our way along the corridor. If it was possible, this one seemed even worse than the last. The bulbs were so dim that the shadows between each of the overhead lights seemed to encroach on the light and the whole passage seemed to sag with an invisible weight.
“Same again,” I confirmed, opening the first door. There weren’t as many doors along this side of the corridor and we worked right along the left side first where we found yet more guest rooms, these ones with adjoining bathrooms. Reaching the end, we turned and continued searching along the right side.
It seemed that this was where the family themselves stayed, judging by the difference in the rooms. There were three room in total along this side, all with en-suite bathrooms. Double beds and huge wardrobes made up the bulk of the furniture and I saw a few personal belongings left behind when the family went on holiday, but there wasn’t much. For all intents and purposes it felt like this place had been abandoned a long time ago.
We reached the top of the stairs but Delta and Luka still weren’t back.
“There’s another door here,” Vaughn pointed it out. He strode across and yanked it open. A blast of cold air rushed from the space beyond and instantly, the hairs on my arms rose in protest.
“That’s cold.” I shivered.
“I think it’s the attic.”
Moving closer, I peered through the door. Only the blackness beyond was apparent. A switch on my right did little to relieve the darkness but I knew it was up there. Whatever had made itself at home here was hiding in the attic.
“It’s up there,” I whispered, taking a step forward.
“Wait.” Vaughn held my arm.
“I’ll just take a look.” I shrugged him free and took the first step into the attic. The cold air enveloped me, but I shut it out as I crept up the stairs, moving as slowly as possible to prevent any noise. I didn’t want it to know I was coming. I crested the stairs where I stooped to a crouch and surveyed the scene. My head torch illuminated only the barest of details. The attic itself was a treasure trove of junk and forgotten items, whether from this family or someone else, I didn’t know. Cardboard boxes once piled high were now sagging, some of their contents spilling out in rips where the damp had torn through. I saw a wooden rocking horse wedged in the corner, its painted grin long faded and its woollen mane strewn with silvery spider webs.
“Ruby,” Vaughn warned as I took another step in. He was right behind me as I duck-walked to a pile of boxes, making sure to keep low. “We have to wait for them.”
“Do you feel that?” I asked, ignoring his remark.
He felt it too. It was in here. My hands went to either side of my waist to grab the most valuable tools in my arsenal when something careened into Vaughn. It knocked him off his feet and sent him sprawling close to the stairs.
“Vaughn!” I yelled. He held up a hand as he righted himself and was just about to get to his feet when he was knocked further down the room. The thing was almost too quick to see but I caught a glimpse of the darkness as it swirled around him.
Jumping up, I ran towards him, the salt in my left hand. I thrust it forward and heard the satisfied hiss of demon flesh as it connected. The black mass whipped away as fast as it came. I stood in front of Vaughn, his human shield holding up my torch and my salt, ready for the next attack.
“You okay?” I asked without looking back. I heard him shuffle then he got to his feet and was beside me.
“Yeah. Just got a shock. Where did it go?”
“Over in that corner.” I pointed with the light.
Without another word, we both approached. It knew we were there. It was ready. But so were we.
Sliding my torch back into my utility belt, I reached around for the pistol, taking it in my grip and flicking the safety off without so much as a glance, making a mental note to thank Luka for being such a good teacher.
“I think I see it.” Vaughn’s voice was low and steady.
“On three.” He waited at my side for the command. “One. Two. Three!”
We lunged forward, Vaughn pinning the black mass in his torch beam and stunning it with salt. I caught a glimpse of it and for a second I faltered. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. A cloud of darkness, like a shadow had imploded. It rested just above the floor without touching the old boards. I felt the evil rising from its core, pulsing with desire for death.
Vaughn’s attack with the salt immobilised it and I finally pulled myself back to my senses, and swung the pistol up. I aimed at the thing, unsure whether it would affect such an aqueous cloud, but I had to try. I fired, sending a spray of rock salt into the demon. Immediately the matter began to fizzle, the skin—if that’s what you could call it—dispersing into the air.
“What’s going on?” Delta yelled, his boots heavy on the floor as he raced up behind us. Luka was close behind.
“We got it,” I breathed.
The four of us stood and watched until the last of the demon faded into nothing.
“I’ll send the report to Sheila,” Delta offered.
“That was a nebulous demon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those in its pure form.” Luka shook his head.
“What’s a nebulous demon?” I asked.
“Its own form is that of a cloud-like substance, to allow easy passage for possession.”
I shuddered. It was a good job Hucknall House had been empty otherwise its inhabitants might have ended up with more than a decrepit house.
Just before we got back into Vaughn’s car, I dared to take another look back at the house. I could swear it looked like it stood a little taller.
This story is set in the world of Demon Hunters. Book one will be releasing Fall 2017.
Alice lives and works in the North East of England with her partner and slightly ferocious cats! Alice has always enjoyed writing, since she was a child carrying notebooks and writing stories no matter where she went. When she’s not writing, she always has a book in her hand and will read from whatever genre suits her that day.
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[Rose Grants a Wish
by Emily S. Deibel]
“You have to come,” Cecilly said. The child slung on her hip whined his agreement.
Rose arched an eyebrow at her sister while patting her three-year-old nephew on the head. “Leo, tell your Mama to calm down before she goes into labor.”
Cecilly smoothed the front of her gown over the slight bulge in front. “You don’t have to say it so loudly.”
“First you say I have to do something, then you say I don’t have to do something,” Rose shot back and rolled her eyes. “Are we really back to you telling me what to do all the time?”
Pregnant Cecilly acted a lot like the bossy Cecilly of five years ago, when they’d been on the verge of losing their shop and home. Rose knew better than to direct barbs at her sister in her condition, but sometimes she couldn’t help it.
Violet executed a petit jeté, landing behind Cecilly. “Take deep breathes, sister dear.” She leaped away again, spinning around Rose’s three employees at work near the fireplace.
“Me! Spin!” shouted Leo. He squirmed out of Cecilly’s arms to race around the shop after Vi.
Rose growled. “Trust that girl to find a hobby that encourages her leaping about.”
Cecilly gave a tired laugh. “I know.” Suddenly, Cecilly’s arms were around Rose.
“Cess, I’m nineteen.”
“Old enough to decide if I don’t want to come to a fancy dinner party with a bunch of stuffy people.”
Cecilly let her go and tucked a strand of Rose’s white gold hair back into place. “I’m not forcing you. I’m merely trying to persuade you by pointing out that these quarterly dinners are important to me. And difficult. I miss you and I want you to be there for moral support.”
Rose’s brother-in-law, Ben, led the Council of their resort city, Havenshire. As a Prince of the Realm, he drew a lot of attention, which often pulled Cecilly into the public’s affairs. Years ago, Havenshire had been split by a wall into two districts: the wealthy Hot Springs and nobles verses the poorer Cold Springs and laborers. Ben and Cecilly tore down the wall and worked tirelessly to improve relations between the districts. Cecilly had started hosting a quarterly dinner in her quest to bring both sides of the town together. She’d divided the Hot Springs into quarters and the Cold Springs into quarters. Every three months she invited, at random, some citizens from a Hot Springs quarter and some from a Cold Springs quarter to the Council House for a “relaxed” dinner and dance. The quarter quarterly, as the locals called it, was supposed to be an opportunity for each side to come together and find common ground. In reality, they resulted in a fair amount of snubbing and politicking. Once it ended in an all-out brawl.
“They’re improving,” Cecilly said as if reading Rose’s mind. “This is the fourth time your quarter has been invited and you have yet to come. I know you have more than one dress to wear upstairs and I know you’re closing shop early today because most of the orders for this evening have already been picked up.”
The shop bell rang as a tall figure swathed in a long cloak and veil entered. “Ooh, look at that,” said Rose with mock regret. “I still have a client to see to.”
Cecily narrowed her eyes at her sister. “I love you even when you’re aggravating.”
Rose heaved a large sigh. “Fine, you win. I’ll come if I can hurry through this client and change in time.”
“I’m scheduled for a final fitting,” said the woman in a strangely high voice.
Rose waved at her. “Behind the partition. Marta, find her dress upstairs.”
“I should get out of your way so you won’t be late,” Cecilly said with a big smile. “There’s a new healer in your quarter coming to dinner that you have to meet. Wear your hair down; it’s so lovely. Leo, Vi, stop leaping about like antelopes and get over here.”
“Yes, I know. Don’t tell you what to do.”
Rose shook her head ruefully at Cecilly’s retreating entourage and returned to work. Wear my hair down, she thought indignantly. Rose liked the braids wrapped like a crown atop her head. She’d never been able to plait her hair before the Cinders had permanently rid her of her tight corkscrew curls. And she should have known Cecilly wanted her to come to dinner only to set her up with someone.
Marta came out from behind the partition. “She doesn’t want help changing, Miss Rose.”
“No need!” said the high voice. “I’m almost ready.”
Rose shared a look with her employee. “Tell the others they can go home. I’ll take care of this client and lock up for the night.”
“Yes, Miss,” Marta said with a curtsy.
Cecilly’s fame had rubbed off a little on her sisters, but Rose had also accrued respect from Havenshire’s citizens by making the best dresses in town, for anyone in town. She squared her shoulders. Although she didn’t have Cecilly’s charisma, she could now hold a client’s gaze and speak with authority.
A sharp, almost chemical smell hit Rose as she rounded the partition, along with a hint of shaving oil. “Madam, how does the dress fit?”
To her surprise, the lady had kept her face veiled, making it impossible to recognize her features. Her long arms reached awkwardly behind her trying to fix the last buttons.
“Here, let me,” Rose offered.
“No, I can manage.”
Rose moved forward anyway.
“I insist,” said the woman almost an octave lower.
“Done!” the lady said and gave a fake sounding titter.
Rose walked around the client slowly. The dress fit too snug around the shoulders and a little loose around the hips. Odd. She usually had a better eye than this. “Who took your first measurements?”
“Oh, I sent my measurements by messenger.”
“You should have come in person. This will never do. The shoulders—”
“Oh, well I eat a lot, so I like to save some room in the stomach area.”
Rose couldn’t help gaping.
“I guessed wrong on the height. The hem needs to be adjusted four inches higher.”
“Four inches higher and more than your ankles will be showing. It would be too indecent. Let’s start with the shoulders.”
Rose placed her hands on the lady’s upper arms to turn her around. They were more than a little defined. She also got a stronger whiff of shaving oil this close to the client. With a burgeoning suspicion that not all was as it appeared, Rose yanked up the lady’s veil in one swift motion.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said the client who was obviously not female.
Rose was at a complete loss for words. Before her stood a young man, maybe in his early twenties, with a shock of strawberry blonde hair. Next to her toffee complexion, his looked like paste. An explosion of freckles dotted his entire face and the backs of his hands.
“You advertise that you make dresses for anyone.”
“Yes, any woman from any district. You’ll have to leave.”
The man dropped to his knees. “I’m not out of my mind, I promise, and I’m not playing a prank.”
The stranger grabbed her hand. “It’s a surprise for my sister.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I received an invitation for tonight’s quarter quarterly. My sister’s been through a lot. You know…the plague. I’m all she has left. I moved her to a new quarter for my profession and she hasn’t made any friends yet. I’m giving her my ticket to the dinner and a new dress. I want her to feel pretty and meet some new people. Please, help me.”
Rose remembered once wanting her own pretty dress to wear. “You don’t know much about women, do you?”
One corner of his mouth tipped up. “I know the body parts well, but not the workings of the mind.”
“I’m a healer.”
Understanding dawned. Cecilly’s prospect for her had stumbled across her path all on his own. “That explains the chemical smell.”
“Ah, that would be my cleansing solution. I’m trying to get the district to use it to wash their hands before and after they eat. It’s good hygiene.”
“You know the dinner ticket would have been surprise enough. Most women prefer choosing their own fabric and style for the dress.”
“But if she’d known about the dress, the dinner wouldn’t have been a surprise.”
“She still doesn’t know about the dinner? It starts in a couple hours.”
“Plenty of time.”
“You really, really don’t understand women.”
“Help me, please. I obviously need it.”
“Did I mention it’s her birthday?”
“And she’s my twin. Making it my birthday as well.”
She was getting soft. “Put this back on,” she said and threw the veil at his face. “Take me to your sister and spring this surprise. Then I’ll alter the dress and get her to the Council House on time if it kills us both.”
“Bless you, beautiful angel!” He leaped up, caught her about the waist and spun her around. Rose’s legs caught the partition, sending it clattering to the floor.
“Ouch,” Rose muttered.
“There’s no time to be sorry. We need to run.”
“Right.” He looped her arm through his and dragged her through the streets, his longer legs eating up the cobbles in their haste. Fortunately, he didn’t live that far away. Still, Rose was sweaty and breathless as they went through an apothecary shop, climbed a set of stairs, and came to a laboratory and living quarters that overlooked an open court with a well in the middle.
“Anthony, is that you?” came a feminine voice from the drawing room.
He wasn’t lying. He did have a twin. She had the same strawberry blonde hair and constellations of freckles spreading across the pale contours of her face.
Anthony bowed dramatically. “Happy birthday! I’ve brought you your very own seamstress.” Then he curtsied. “I also brought a dress.”
“Then why are you wearing it, Brother?”
“Because he’s not very bright,” said Rose.
The lady laughed. “You’re the first to ever say that.”
“Most people think I’m a genius,” he agreed.
“Don’t listen to him, Seamstress—”
The lady dropped a deep curtsy. “The Rose? Anthony, you got an appointment with the famous seamstress and you didn’t take me?”
Rose gave the young man an I-told-you-so look. He only laughed.
“Not only is she the best seamstress, but she is also the kindest. Rose, meet my lovely sister Ari. Ari, Rose. And I am—”
“Do not finish that introduction until you are wearing pants. I need that dress on your sister immediately.”
“What is going on?” asked Ari.
“Your brother, the genius, is sending you to the quarter quarterly tonight in style. I’ll fix your dress while you fix your hair.”
Ari’s million freckles scrunched together as her smile blossomed. “Anthony!”
“Save the thanks,” Rose said brusquely. “We have work to do.”
Anthony reentered with the formal gown draped over his shoulder. Men, Rose thought. They have no idea how to handle women’s clothes.
“You know, you get the most darling little furrow between your brows when you glower at me,” he whispered as she leaned close to him to retrieve the gown.
Rose carefully hid her smile before it got too wide. “Go change.”
“I did already.”
“It’s your birthday, too, isn’t it? You are escorting your sister to dinner at the Council House and meeting his Highness, the Prince. Go put on your best coat and breeches.”
“I only have one ticket,” he said.
Rose laughed, for she had finally confused the man who had utterly bewildered her all afternoon. She took those well-defined shoulders of his in her hands and escorted him from the room. “I think I can get you a second ticket. I know a few people.”
“You are an angel inside and out.”
“You obviously don’t know me.”
Anthony took her hand and pressed his lips to her knuckles. “Yet.”
Maybe the Cinders granted her some magic because the dress came together in a flash, Ari’s hair looked perfect, and Anthony happened to have an ironed shirt and starched cravat ready and waiting. Rose spared one regretful glance at her shop clothes. Cecilly wouldn’t care. She’d probably be happy enough that her sister finally came to her dinner.
Anthony held out an arm for his sister and the other for Rose. “Ready, lovely ladies?”
“Just a minute.” Rose pulled out her hair pins, one by one. She could do this simple thing about her appearance for her sister. By the approving look in Anthony’s eye, Cecilly was right about wearing her hair down. Ari ran a brush through Rose’s waist-length hair and tucked one side up with a clip.
Rose slipped her arm around Anthony’s. “Happy birthday,” she said.
“Yes, it has been.”
“You know, you get the most darling dimples when you smile at me.” Rose bumped shoulders with him playfully.
“Brother,” said Ari. “I like this lady. She can take your nonsense and turn it against you. I think you should invite her over for dinner.”
“I don’t need my sister to set me up.”
“Sisters.” Rose shrugged. “It’s easier to just agree with them.”
“Very true,” Anthony acknowledged with a nod. “Well then, Lady Seamstress, I wish that you would have dinner with me.”
Rose leaned against his arm and said with a sincere smile, “Wish granted.”
This story is set in the world of Cecilly in Cinderland.
Emily S. Deibel lives Michigan. Although most of her time is spent taking care of a husband, four children, and one fat cat, she also likes to read, write, and talk about YA fiction.
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[Beneath the Wildflowers
by D. G. Driver]
“Do you see him? He’s so cute!” I said, jamming the tip of my index finger into the passenger seat window of Haley’s car. “Look, before we pass him again.”
“I see Ted Cowley. He’s cute. I do not see a groundhog.”
Haley wasn’t looking out my window but straight out the front windshield. I’d like to say she was concentrating on pulling into the student parking lot, but she wasn’t doing that either. She was focused on Ted’s tight rear-end. A groan escaped her as Ted’s girlfriend Regina put her arm around him and led him toward her group of friends. Then there was a gasp. That was from me as she almost hit the car in front of us.
“Focus, please.” I said.
“What? You wanted me to stare out the window for a rodent.”
“But he’s cute,” I persisted. “I don’t think he’s a groundhog, though. He’s too small. I think he’s a gopher.”
“Is there a difference?” She found a spot and pulled into it.
I gathered up my lunchbox and backpack while Haley turned off the car. “Yes, there is a difference between a gopher and a groundhog. One is a—”
“I don’t really care,” Haley said to me. She flashed me one of her fake sweet smiles that always got me to shut up. “I mean, nothing personal, but it doesn’t matter to me. The only thing groundhogs are good for is letting me know if there’s going to be more winter or an early spring. Since it’s already spring, he has no purpose.”
“It’s a gopher.”
“Right. Does he predict anything?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then, my dear Juniper, he’s useless to me.”
We didn’t talk the rest of the way across the parking lot. I took one last glance toward the overgrown field of wildflowers beside the campus before walking up the steps to the front doors. That gopher was a brave little guy. The noise and traffic of kids arriving at school should have made him skittish, but he’d been there every morning that week, up on is hind legs as tall as he could get.
One of the few things I liked about our school was that it backed up against this little meadow with a small wooded area behind it. A couple months back a chain-link fence had been put up around the perimeter of it. Now I noticed something else. There were stakes in the ground with orange flags on them spaced in lines throughout the meadow. I connected them like a dot-to-dot puzzle.
“Oh no,” I moaned.
The stakes marked where a building was going to be constructed. How had I not heard about this? I bet they were getting ready to tear up the field and do construction over summer break.
Third period I had Intermediate Photography. Thanks to all the work I’d done with my parents over the years with their environmental activism efforts at beaches or in forests, photography had become a bit of a passion. It was turning out to be a lovely day, and our classroom windows let in all the May sunshine. All of us were getting restless to get outside, including Mrs. Trevore. About fifteen minutes into class, she abruptly stopped her lecture about focusing techniques. “Who wants to go outside?”
The vote was unanimous.
“Great.” She slapped her hands on her hips. “Let’s go take some pictures and work on how to get nature shots without glare from the sunlight. It’s not as easy as it sounds. And since the field next to the school will soon be replaced by a new basketball stadium, let’s take advantage of the time we have left with it and a take our pictures there.”
“I don’t want to get ticks.” That was Angela Martin. I’d heard the only reason she was in photography was because she wanted to be a model and thought she should know her way around a camera. I didn’t think much of her photography skills, but she could sure take a good selfie.
“I have bug spray,” Mrs. Trevore responded.
She gathered up her classroom cameras, and we were all told to bring our cell phones. A few minutes later, we were let loose in the field. Most of the kids stayed in pairs or groups and went around taking pictures of themselves in the field. I heard Mrs. Trevore reminding them that the point was to take pictures of nature. I meandered away from everyone and snapped pictures both on the class Nikon and my cell phone. The field was overgrown with a variety of weeds and wildflowers. I caught a fair amount of bees and butterflies. Then pop! A few yards away from me, a little brown head came out of the ground. The gopher rose out of its hole and stared right at me. I snapped pictures of him as I crept closer and closer, testing the animal’s courage.
I was within a few feet when I heard a scream somewhere behind me.
The gopher ducked into a hole, and I spun around to see what was happening. Everyone was running across the field. Way back where the met the woods, a girl was screaming and flailing her arms. When I got there, two of the guys were pulling on Angela’s arms. Her right leg had gotten stuck in a hole all the way to her shin. They tugged as Mrs. Trevore got to her knees and helped turn Angela’s ankle.
“It’s got me!” Angela shrieked. “Something’s got me!”
“Your foot is just caught on something,” Mrs. Trevore said sharply. “Relax.”
“No! Something is holding my ankle!”
“Angela!” Mrs. Trevore’s voice was like a slap.
Angela whimpered, but her eyes remained wild.
I got down on my knees beside our teacher and dug away at the soft dirt to make the hole wider. Finally, we were able to free her sandaled foot. For a split second, I swear I saw tiny brown fingers with long claws before they disappeared underground. They did not look like gopher hands. I shook the ridiculous thought away. I’d only seen them for an instant, if I’d seen them at all.
Still, when I looked over at Angela, I could see her right ankle and calf were bleeding. She was covered in little scratches and what looked like bites. What could have caused that?
Mrs. Trevore stood up and wiped her hands on her pants. “What were you doing over here?”
Angela was hiccupping with tears, but she answered, “I was trying to get a picture with the trees behind me, and I stepped in the hole. And then something pulled me in deeper.”
“Okay, okay,” Mrs. Trevor said.
“No, I swear. Something is in that hole.”
“Let’s get back inside, everyone,” Mrs. Trevore said. Her fun outing had been ruined. She asked the boys to help Angela to the nurse’s office.
I walked beside my teacher as we headed for the door. “You don’t really think a gopher did that to her leg, do you?” I asked.
“Nah. There were rocks in there or something. She got her foot in there pretty deep.”
Our homework that night was to upload the best pictures we’d taken during our ‘field trip’ to the gallery on Mrs. Trevore’s class website and write what was interesting or poignant about them. I went to Haley’s house so I could use her faster internet and better computer. I had already posted a couple pictures of the wildflowers after finding out the names of them and pointing out that they were indigenous to the area. Next, I pulled up the images I’d taken of the gopher.
“That’s cute!” Haley said, looking at my picture.
“I told you he was cute.”
“That’s the groundhog you’ve been talking about every morning?”
“Whatever it is.”
“It let me get really close to it,” I told her. “It wasn’t afraid of me at all. It didn’t move until Angela started shrieking.”
Haley laughed so hard she snorted. “I heard about that. Said she got her foot stuck in a gopher hole, and they were attacking her. Is that even possible? Are gophers vicious like that? I wish I’d seen it.”
I laughed a little, too, not quite with the glee my best friend had about it. Angela had been pretty shaken up and hurt, and it was hard to think that was funny. “I showed the picture to my dad and asked about it.”
Haley put her fingers to her forehead like a psychic. “You are about to tell me that this gopher is an endangered species. It’s only found in this area of Washington and must be protected at all costs.”
“That’s exactly what he said. It’s a Cathlamet Pocket Gopher.”
“How did I know?” Her sarcasm bit.
I chewed my lip then said. “Dad looked through the rest of my pictures and found a species of butterfly that’s endangered, too. He showed the pictures to my mom. Next thing I know they’re organizing a protest.”
Haley’s face went dark. “A protest against what?”
“Tearing up that field. They want it preserved to save the butterflies and gophers and any other wildlife that might be living there.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“That’s supposed to be the new basketball stadium,” Haley whined. “We’re all looking forward to it. Ted’s been going on and on about how great it’s going to be.”
I didn’t care what Ted had been going on and on about, and I was sure that he hadn’t been going on about it to Haley.
“They’re going to be petitioning the mayor and the governor and then stage a picket line.”
“This is so embarrassing.”
I pointed at the picture of the cute gopher. “Don’t you want him and his family saved?”
“Do not care about rodents. Do care about the happiness of my future boyfriend.”
I sighed and went back to uploading the picture to Mrs. Trevore’s page. I typed some facts Dad had told me about it. When I was done, I muttered thanks and gathered up my stuff.
“Don’t be mad at me, June. You’re the one who took the picture of the gopher and started this mess. Can’t you and your parents ever let anything go?”
What was there to say? I liked Haley, but sometimes I felt like we would never understand each other. Why couldn’t she ever see anything beyond high school?
Haley leaned forward and put a hand on my arm. “Look, sorry. It’s nothing between you and me, okay? I don’t think your parents will win this fight, anyway, so I’m not too concerned about it.”
I tried to be light about it all. “Hey, you know how you were being a fortune teller a second ago? What’s funny about that is this story my dad told me about the gopher. He says according to American Indian folklore, gophers are harbingers of bad news, perhaps illness or death.”
“That’s cheery,” Haley said, shaking her head. “So, if we believe in that stuff, then that gopher is warning us of something?”
The next day I didn’t see the gopher when we drove up to school, but I did see that a couple bulldozers had shown up. A couple of girls handed out fliers to everyone entering the building. One was slipped to me. On the paper was my photo of the gopher done up as a Wanted! poster. Below the image, it read: Evil Gopher at Large! Wanted for attempted dismemberment of West Olympia student. Kill if found.
Haley busted out laughing at it. I didn’t think it was funny at all.
As we passed through the hallways, I saw the flier posted all over the place, on the lockers, walls, and classroom doors. I don’t know what came over me, but I started grabbing posters and crumpling them up. I snatched them out of the hands of kids walking by. Haley shouted at me while kids pointed and laughed. I heard them calling me ‘crazy’ and ‘weird’. I didn’t care. I shoved the posters deep in a trashcan.
Haley approached me and said quietly so no one would hear her. “It’s just a joke, June. Don’t be so sensitive.”
I left her there and went straight to the principal’s office instead of going to class to tell Mr. Mains about what had been done with my photo. Mrs. Trevore had beat me there, was waving a handful of the posters at him while demanding something be done about it. I told him about the endangered animals in the field. Mr. Mains was sympathetic and said he would make sure the posters were all taken down, but he wasn’t sure what could be done about the construction. Those plans were approved by the school board.
I turned to leave his office just as Ms. Slater entered and we almost ran into each other. “Why are you out of class, Juniper Sawfeather?”
“I was talking to Mr. Mains.”
“Get to class, or I’ll mark you as truant.”
Mr. Mains cleared his throat, thinking, I’m sure, that this sounded as ridiculous to him as it did to me. “Is something the matter, Ms. Slater?”
“Yes, something’s the matter,” she said, her voice haughty and irritable. She pushed past me and pointed at the closed window. “Juniper’s parents are outside with a group of people standing with signs in front of the bulldozers. I’ve already called the police.”
Mr. Main sighed and rubbed his eyes. “That wasn’t necessary.”
I dashed out of the office, hearing her voice chasing me, “You better get to class, Miss Sawfeather, or you’ll be in detention!”
“Ignore her and come with me,” said Mrs. Trevore as she stepped up beside me.
We headed to her classroom and interrupted the student teacher while she grabbed her bag of cameras. Then she grabbed my hand and led me out to the field where we found my parents and a handful of their friends standing with signs in front of the bulldozers. The angry construction workers spit and cussed alternately. The police had arrived already and were in the process of telling my parents that they had to get off the field or be arrested for trespassing. Mrs. Trevore stepped up then and said, “I’m a teacher here, and I’m allowed to be on these premises. My student and I are doing a special documentation project and will be out here all day.”
“You’re going to get fired for this,” I whispered to her.
“We’ll see,” she said back. To my parents she said, “I’ll make sure those bulldozers don’t move. Not today, anyway.”
Mom seemed impressed by my teacher and agreed to move the whole group to the sidewalk where they marched back and forth with their signs. Mrs. Trevore and I made a big show of taking pictures and discussing them. One lone newsman came to report on us. I recognized him from other events my parents had staged and his occasional correspondence piece on Channel 4 News. His name was Juarez Pena. After making some notes and interviewing protesters, he called me over to the fence to ask some questions because I’d been the one to take the photos. I was telling him about the stupid Wanted! posters when my mom swooped in and said he could direct any further questions to her.
My mother, the control freak. How dare I steal her spotlight and have something of my own to say?
So, Pena obliged her by asking, “Someone got hurt in that field yesterday?”
“Oh no,” Mom said, laughing off the notion. “A girl tripped and got her foot stuck in a gopher hole. That’s all.”
“Does that mean the field might be unsafe? Pock-marked with holes as it is.”
I said loudly, so they would hear me, “Any place is unsafe if you don’t watch where you’re walking.”
Mrs. Trevore added, “Besides, the kids aren’t allowed out here without supervision.”
My dad stepped toward us then. “Is there anything I can help you with, Juarez? I know a little more about the gophers than my wife and daughter.” He launched into a whole thing about gopher habitats that was much more information than Pena probably needed for his piece. I could see the reporter’s eyes glazing over. Perhaps Dad did as well, because he randomly said, “Of course, the girl might have been pulled into the hole by Little People.”
“What?” That was all of us at once.
“Little People?” Juarez asked, scratching his head with his pen.
Dad grinned mischievously, and I cringed. Oh no, what was he about to say? Not some weird legend. Not in front of the news guy.
“In American Indian mythology, we don’t have fairies like in western myths. However, we do have a number of legends about mysterious tiny people. They’re notoriously wicked and like to do tricks or cause mayhem. Sometimes they live underground in fields or meadows like this.”
I expected Pena to roll his eyes or shake his head in dismay. I also thought he might laugh in my father’s face. The reporter didn’t do any of that. “That’s fascinating. I’m part American Indian, too, and I think I’ve heard stories about Little People like that living in caves along the shoreline up north.”
“I didn’t know you were part Native,” Dad said, putting his arm around Juarez and leading him away from us. “Which tribal nation?”
Mom shouted after them, “That whole Little People evil elf thing is off the record, Pena!” The rolling eyes and shaking head wound up coming from her. “Your father, June.”
At the end of the school day, Mrs. Trevore said she was taking off and had me abandon the field as well. By this point the construction workers had given up for the day. My parents had left a couple hours earlier for a meeting with the city planner. Their protesting team left, too. I waited for Haley by her locker to catch a ride home, but she wasn’t there. I tried her phone, but it went straight to voicemail. When she didn’t show, I wandered out to the parking lot. Her car was still there.
Was she avoiding me? How was I supposed to get home? The busses had already left. I walked toward the sidewalk, figuring I’d make the long trek back to my house. About as far from the building as he could get, I saw the gopher out of its hole. I approached the fence and clicked at it. The gopher crawled toward me and stopped just on the far side of the fence. I knelt down to be on its level.
“You have a lot of trust, don’t you?” I stuck my fingers through the fence, and the gopher nuzzled up against my fingers sweetly. I should have been worried it might bite me, but I wasn’t. “Are you trying to warn me about anything?”
As if in answer, it scuttled away from me and stood next to the nearest gopher hole. It stamped its little foot.
“Is there something about the holes you want me to know?”
It stamped its foot again and then suddenly went rigid. It looked at the school building, then at me, and scrambled into the hole. A second later I heard the whooping and hollering of a group of teens as they burst out of the side door of the school. Ted and a bunch of his basketball buddies spread out all over the field. Coming out the door was the basketball coach followed by the team’s girlfriends, friends, and one wishful hanger-on. Haley.
I called to her. “Haley! What are you doing?”
She purposely ignored me and continued cheering. The boys chanted the “Gopher Guts” song from the movie Caddyshack while they kicked dirt into the holes around the field. I climbed the fence. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I raced toward the basketball coach.
“What are you doing? Stop them!”
He crossed his arms and looked down at me. Now, I’m a tall girl. Nearly six-feet-tall, but he was a good six inches above me. I wasn’t used to feeling small. “If Mrs. Trevore can stay out here with you all day to impede the work on my gymnasium, then I have the right to come out here with my team and hasten it. No more rare gophers. Nothing to protect.”
“You’re telling them to hurt the gophers?”
“Oh please,” he said. “They’ve got a whole network of burrows under the ground. We’re trying to scare them so they’ll run off further toward the woods and be safe. I’m doing a service.”
I didn’t know if that was how it worked exactly and wished my dad were here to voice his opinion. “You’ve got to stop. My parents are working with the city planner on what to do with the field. If you could just wait—”
“We are solving the problem for them. Keep it up, boys! Lots of noise now!” He gestured for the others standing around. “Go on. Go help. You won’t get in trouble as long as I’m here.”
The girlfriend group let loose on the field. Their steps were more tentative than those of their reckless boyfriends. I heard Regina say something about finding the hole where Angela had caught her foot, and a group headed that direction. Haley followed behind like a stray dog.
I was in the process of texting my parents about what was happening when I heard a scream for help.
“Ah, it hurts! Help! I’m stuck!”
It was Haley’s voice, but I didn’t see her. What I did see was Regina and a bunch of her friends standing around laughing and pointing. I rushed past the basketball coach and found Haley in the middle of the group, lying face down on the ground with her arm in the hole.
“I’m stuck! Someone help me!”
Regina and her friends continued to laugh at her.
“You shouldn’t have put your hand in there,” Regina said. “That was stupid.”
“You told me to.”
I rounded on Regina. “You told her to do that? What’s wrong with you?”
“I just asked if someone wanted to get a closer look. I didn’t think anyone would do it.”
“It hurts, June,” Haley said.
I knelt down and dug at the dirt around the hole. Haley’s arm was stuck past the elbow. “How did you even do this?”
She whispered to me. “I swear something pulled my hand in deeper.”
I took her elbow and gently tugged until her hand loosened. It was covered in scratches like Angela’s foot had been.
Haley mumbled thanks before standing up. The basketball coach shouted at everyone that it was time to finish up, saying something about not having insurance if anyone broke an ankle in one of these holes.
I hadn’t looked up for any of this. I kept my attention on the hole because for a split second, I swear I’d seen little yellow eyes looking back up at me. I got down on my stomach and dug at the hole a bit more. I cautiously dipped my fingers into the darkness, and there! There was a tug. A definite tug on my fingers. I pulled back hard and I felt a sharp bite on my knuckles and another strong tug toward the hole. Whatever held my fingers had latched on with teeth or nails. I pulled harder, and being bigger and stronger, I got my fingers free of the hole.
For a heartbeat, I saw it. A tiny five-fingered hand with sharp nails attached to the smallest, thinnest arm I’d ever seen. It was grayish brown in color and no bigger than the arm and hand of a premature baby. It scratched me hard before it let go and disappeared into the darkness. My hand was bleeding.
“Sawfather!” barked the coach from the door where the other students were moping their way back into the building. “Get away from that hole!”
I wanted to stay and discover what creature lived down there. I got my phone out and held it awkwardly in my left hand, hoping to catch a picture if I could get the critter to reach out again. I inched my fingers back into the hole, wiggling my fingers invitingly, but nothing grabbed on. A high-pitched squeaking noise behind me caught my attention. I twisted around and found the gopher about three feet from me up on its haunches.
“You don’t want me to do this, do you?” I asked him. “Is that your warning? Something is living in these holes besides your family?”
The gopher lowered his head and creeped past me. It dipped its head into the hole, pulled it out, and sniffed like whatever was in there was unpleasant to him. I patted its back, its fur soft under my fingers. The gopher stiffened for a second and then toddled away. I heard a new sound. It sounded like the tittering of laughter, and it came from the hole.
All the kids were standing at the door staring at me when I stood up. I guess they were wondering what I was doing and were very surprised that the gopher approached me like that. The basketball coach said to me, “Hey, Dr. Dolittle. If you can talk to the animals, can you tell them to get out of here so I can have my new stadium?”
Everyone laughed. I did not.
On the way home Haley asked, “Was it a gopher that grabbed me?”
I didn’t know how to answer her, because I was positive it hadn’t been a gopher. It had been one of the Little People from my dad’s mythology. Could that even be possible? My dad had shared the legends of our people with me for years, but I don’t think even he considered that any of them could be true, that mythical creatures really existed in our world. There had to be another explanation.
“It wasn’t a gopher,” I told Haley. “I don’t know what it was. Underground roots or something.”
She bought that explanation because it made sense. Tiny people living underground didn’t make sense.
“Do you think your parents can save that field for the gophers?” she asked.
“They will definitely try their hardest. I’ve never known them to back down from a challenge.”
Haley moaned. “You know if they succeed, and the school doesn’t get its new stadium, you’re going to be even less popular than ever. You know that, right?”
“They’re just gophers.”
“Endangered gophers. And rare butterflies,” I pointed out.
And something else that needed to be protected.
Construction on the field was put on hold until the issue of the field was resolved. Just as school was about to be let out for the summer, it was concluded that a managed relocation of the wildlife in the field would take place, moving them closer to the base of the Cascade Mountains. It would take most of the summer.
I never told my dad about the arm, hand, and eyes I saw in that hole. Despite all his stories, I didn’t think he’d believe me. I did wonder what would happen to those mysterious creatures when Dad and his team started trapping and moving the various animals that lived in the field. Would they be smart enough to move? To dig their underground homes somewhere else? Or would they all be killed by the bulldozers?
I always wondered, though, was the gopher trying to warn us about the creatures? Or was he warning them about us?
This story is set in the world of the Juniper Sawfeather series.
D. G. Driver is the author of the Juniper Sawfeather Novels, a three-book fantasy series that begins with the award-winning novel Cry of the Sea. In these books, teen environmental activist Juniper Sawfeather has an uncanny ability to discover and communicate with mythical creatures like mermaids, ancient tree spirits, and trolls during her efforts to protect the natural world. The three stories are tied together using American Indian mythology. Learn more about these and her other works at www.dgdriver.com.
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[The Veil is Rent
by Elisabeth Hamill]
Leaves drifted through the dark, night-borne crimson and gold flowers that brushed against her upturned cheeks. Telyn Songmaker cradled the bodhran in the crook of her arm as she inhaled scents of wood smoke and roasting meat in the crisp air. Sharpness on the breeze spoke of the turn of seasons and a threat of frost as the ghost of her breath showed white against the sky.
On this festival night, an enormous yellow moon rode in the skeletal arms of the trees. Samhain night: it was a time when the barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead thinned like the canopy of autumn leaves above the deep Wood. A faint shiver down her back reminded Telyn foes as well as friends stood on the other side of that veil, and she gratefully accepted the steaming mulled cider her friend Cormac handed her, cupping her hands around the warmth of the mug.
The prospect of playing music had lured Colm and Cormac away from the Tauron guild house with little effort on Telyn’s part. For the last hour, they added their flutes and her bodhran to the group of musicians already in the square. Scores of flushed, happy dancers now roamed among the public rooms and carts that sold food and drink.
“Are you sure that this was a good idea? The entire city knows you were here,” the young Magian asked with a crooked smile. A plain brown hood covering his yellow hair, Cormac remained incognito. The other musicians were unaware that two powerful sorcerers played among them, but Telyn was quickly recognized even with her unruly curls hidden under a thick cowl. “I’m sure Lady Marithiel had very firm ideas about how you should spend the night before your wedding.”
“I can’t think of a better way.” Saluting him with her cup, she took a deep drink of the hot liquid. The cinnamon aroma and tangy bite of the cider provided another sensory confirmation of the waning year. “It’s her own fault for not posting a guard at my door.”
“What about Mithrais? Does he know where you are?”
“This was his idea.”
A deep voice behind her confirmed this with a chuckle. “Besides, all I have to do is listen for music and I’ll find her.”
Arms encircled her waist and gathered her in. Telyn turned her head toward her lifemate as he bent in for a kiss. Mithrais, too, was dressed in nondescript clothing instead of the green of a Tauron warden, but unlike Cormac, his head was bare. Few were aware he was counted among the nine Magians, but his face, so like his father’s, was well known to the folk of the city. Now that he acted on Lord Gwidion’s behalf as the heir to Cerisild, hiding was impossible.
“You’re going to be in even more trouble than Telyn.” Cormac grinned at him.
“You’re probably right. I wish I had been able to talk Diarmid into joining us, but he seems to have a great deal left to accomplish for what is supposed to be a private handfasting.”
“What could possibly be left to do?” Telyn’s eyes widened as she craned her neck to look at him. “Unless Lady Marithiel invited the court without our knowledge, it isn’t a state affair.”
“No idea.” Mithrais’ tone held innocence, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze. Through the empathic bond they shared, she could tell that he had a secret. Telyn narrowed her eyes.
“All right. Don’t tell me.”
He laughed. “You think I’m hiding something?”
“I know you are.”
With a grin, he kissed her cheek. “Where did Colm go?”
“That’s right. Change the subject. You’ll be a quick study on how to manipulate conversations when we get to Winter Court.”
“Colm’s over there.” A wave of Cormac’s hand indicated the cart where he’d purchased the cider. The Air Magian stood deep in conversation with a woman whose bright hair tumbled over a thick shawl. “He talked Maeve into coming out with us. No one in the city has seen Bron for weeks. The brute appears to have moved on.”
Maeve’s son, Edrun, was the first student of magic at the guild house, brought to the Tauron when he used his newly discovered powers to defend his mother from an abusive husband’s wrath. Both were beginning to lose the wary fear they showed when they arrived and blossomed under the Tauron’s protection; especially Maeve. Blushing, her shy smiles were all for Colm, who was clearly smitten.
People drifted back from the taverns and carts, drawn like moths to the bonfire in the center of the square. The mood changed with the rising moon, hushed and somber.
“Is it near time for the remembrances to start?” Telyn asked. The ceremonial aspect of tonight’s festival would conclude with a ritual acknowledging those who died in the past year.
“I came upon them getting ready as I arrived.” Mithrais nodded down the darkened avenue of the western crossroads. “It won’t be long now.”
The steady beat of a drum soon echoed between shuttered buildings. From the shadows a dozen figures emerged. Draped in gauzy, silver-blue cloaks, their faces were obscured by masks of the same shroud-like material. The foremost figure held the drum, a gloved grey hand tapping the head of the instrument and leading the others in this stately, somber pavane. Telyn lifted her bodhran and matched the rhythm, a couplet like the slow beat of a heart. The blank face turned to her in slow motion as they passed by. Eyes glittered with reflected firelight through the slits, and provided meager evidence of the person beneath. Gauze trailed against the dark road behind these ghostly figures, feet invisible in the night.
The gathered revelers became aware of the procession and quieted. Those around the perimeter of the market fell in behind the ethereal group. The twelve eerie figures proceeded to the center and were encircled by the crowd, where the leader maintained his cadence on the drum and another shrouded form stepped forward. A deep, solemn voice rolled through the crossroads.
“We are the dead, gone before
[_We walk with you this night once more. _]
The veil is rent!”
“The veil is rent,” the people murmured in cadence with the drum, and chanted in unison:
[_“Come to us, our fathers, mothers, _]
[_Join us now, our sisters, brothers. _]
The veil is rent!”
“The veil is rent,” the shrouded figures responded.
People began to call out names between the pulses of drumbeats. After each name, the combined voices of the townsfolk added a somber invitation. “Walk with us, the veil is rent.”
Telyn let the soft plea of the invocations wash over her—but something new brushed against the edges of her mind. A touch of energy, a shiver of something that rose with the ancient call offered to the townsfolk’s ancestors. The hair on the back of her neck prickled as she sensed a presence over her shoulder. No one was there when she turned for an uneasy look.
But outside the bonfire’s flickering light, darkness shone with an obsidian glint. No longer soft and black, the night held a sharp hint of silver, misty and almost invisible when faced head on.
Beside her, Mithrais and Cormac lifted their heads with keen interest. Across the square, Colm’s eyes swiveled to Telyn as she played her bodhran near the edge of the crowd. He left Maeve with the other citizens and came to them. “Are you doing this?” he asked Telyn in a low voice.
“This isn’t my power.”
Mithrais negated the idea with a shake of his head. “No, this feels…older, somehow.”
“Do you see this? How strange.” Between Cormac’s fingers, the gathering mist strained and swirled in the firelight. “Magic, no doubt about it. But what is it?”
Insight sent a jolt through Telyn’s limbs. “These chants and invocations—we should have realized. The rituals are spells—
“Spells meant to invite the spirits of the dead,” Mithrais agreed softly.
Vague horror written upon his face, Cormac clasped his hands to his chest. “I’m running my fingers through the dead?”
In reassurance, Colm clapped him on the shoulder. “No, but the curtain between worlds, perhaps. Has anyone else noticed the mist gathering?”
“Not yet. If they have, they aren’t alarmed.” Telyn stiffened. “But they will be. Look.”
Out of the hazy night moved vague shapes—heads, torsos, and arms limned by a faint glow of moonlight as they approached from the west. Transparent. Silent.
This story is set in the world of the Songmaker series.
[_ Elisabeth Hamill is the author of the SONGMAKER fantasy series, which begins with the award-winning novel SONG MAGICK. A nurse by day, wordsmith by night, she is happy to give her geeky imagination free reign and has sworn never to grow up and get boring. Frequently under the influence of caffeinated beverages, she also writes as E.M Hamill for adult readers. You can find her online at www.elisabethhamill.com, on Facebook, or follow her tweets at @songmagick. _]
Visit her website:
[The Day I Lived for Me
by Libby Heily]
Tepid water sloshed over the lip of the tub as Moya rocked back and forth, trying to turn her bath warm again with the friction of her body. The water had started out hot, nearly scalding, but had cooled along with her enthusiasm for the day. The coffee she’d chugged when she’d first woken up had worn off and the uppers hadn’t kicked in yet.
She finally gave up and sat still, running her fingers along the porcelain edge of the tub. The water wouldn’t burn her throat if she slid beneath the surface and forced herself to stay there until the world slipped away. If she could make herself lie still, to accept the discomfort of a slow death, then she wouldn’t have to worry about her parents or the drugs or her life. She wouldn’t have to try once again to be free, to rid herself of her ridiculous cravings, to withdraw, to sweat and puke and cry. She wouldn’t have to run away to get the help she needed.
Moya held her breath and prepared herself for the several-inch dive that could, in fact, kill her. But then she thought of Adam and the life they wanted to build together and she knew she wouldn’t give in to her darkest desire, not when there was so much love waiting for her beyond today.
She jumped at the knock on the door.
“Moya, we have to leave soon,” Barbara said, peeking into the bathroom.
Moya kept her hand hidden in the tub and flashed a single digit at her mother. “I’m just finishing up,” she said in her faux-sweet voice. It was too early to start a proper fight with her mother—the pills had to kick in first at least.
“Just hurry up,” Barbara said before retreating back into the suite.
Moya rolled her eyes. It was just after five a.m, and her mother was already dressed and wearing several inches of make-up. Moya couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her mother’s naked face. Barbara never left her bedroom unless she looked ready to be photographed on the red carpet, though the few times she had been she’d always ended up in the background, behind Moya.
Moya blew bubbles into her bath to drown out the sound of Barbara’s heels clicking on the marble floor as she walked away. What she needed was something stronger than pills, something to really get her going, but she hadn’t been able to sneak anything else into her bag.
Her thoughts drifted to the day ahead of her. The beach. The fricking beach. She hated those shoots the worst. Sand in her bathing suit. Sun in her eyes. Being almost nude in public. Her body shook in the warm water. All those eyes on her. Make-up artists, stylists, the photographer, assistants, interns, her parents. Of course, her parents would be there. She couldn’t do a shoot without them. Not because they cared so much. No. They came along to make sure she stayed, behaved, and finished the shoot like a good girl.
Moya gripped the sides of the tub and pulled herself out. She toweled off briefly before wrapping herself in the hotel’s fluffy robe. The slippers were a half-size too large, but nothing she couldn’t work with. No need to call the front desk at this hour and create a stink; her parents had most likely made the hotel staff’s lives hell since they’d checked in the night before. They usually did whatever it took to keep the staff away from Moya.
A chill ran through her as she stepped into the suite. She glanced at her bedroom door and, sure enough, it was open. Her parents insisted that her door never be closed, even going as far as to remove the doorknob if Moya resisted. That hadn’t been necessary this time.
Barbara entered her room, a glass of orange juice in her hand. “It’s about time you got out. Throw on some clothes and drink this, we have to go.”
“What’s in it?”
“Who’s the mother here?”
Moya eyed the pulpy orange liquid. Mostly juice, by the look of it, but something else as well. Something to wake her up or put her to sleep? Something to make her pliable or alert? Moya tried to read the expression on her mother’s face. It was hard to tell what Barbara was thinking through the base and blush, mascara and lip stick. Her real eyes were hidden beneath colored contacts—she’d gone with green that day. Her faux-eyes gave away nothing. Moya had spotted several empty mini-liquor bottles on the credenza in the main suite when she’d stumbled out for coffee that morning. Her mother was probably too hungover to express much of anything.
“Drink it now,” Barbara said. “Don’t make me get your father.”
The thought of dealing with Stan moved Moya into action. She grabbed the glass and chugged it down, wiping her mouth afterward like a kid in a milk commercial. She nearly laughed at the thought. She’d been a kid in a milk commercial once.
“Glad you’re in a good mood.”
“I need to get dressed,” Moya said, nodding toward the door.
“You can dress in front of me,” Barbara told her, tapping her fingernails against the empty glass.
Moya pushed her mother out of her room, locking the door behind her.
“Open up!” her mother yelled over her own insistent knocking.
Moya dug her phone out of her bag. She’d hidden it in a pocket she’d sewn in herself the day before they’d left. It worked in her favor that her parents thought her incapable of being anything but pretty. Not clever. Not skilled. Not competent. They probably thought she couldn’t balance a check book, even though she’d opened her own account two years ago using her uncle as her ‘guardian’. Thank goodness her uncle found her parents as repellent as she did. Stan and Barbara had grown sloppy, controlling Moya relentlessly but spending money so wildly that they never noticed when any went missing.
She powered on her phone.
“Moya, open this door!” her mother screamed.
She could hear Stan’s voice faintly from the other room. Stan, her father, the man who could barely stomach looking at her. She had no idea what she’d done that had made her father hate her so much but he took no steps to hide his feelings.
“She won’t open the door!” Barbara yelled back at whatever Stan had asked.
Moya put in her security code and unlocked her phone, bringing up her messenger app with one quick tap of her finger.
[_They drugged my juice. _]
Adam texted back within seconds.
[_I’m coming to get you. _]
She typed quickly as Stan pounded on the door.
“Moya, you open this door!” Stan screamed.
[_Be at the McDonald’s on Neptune Boulevard at 6:30. Check out of your hotel. _]
Adam texted right back.
[_I’ll be there. _]
Moya shoved her phone back into the secret pocket, carefully arranging the clothes to cover it. She opened the door, her face expressionless. “I’d like to change in private.”
Stan pushed her aside. “What did you do? What did you take?” he asked.
“What did you put in my juice?”
A look passed between Barbara and Stan. Moya knew it well. The ‘do we tell her or do we risk her overdosing on the shoot’ look. They’d been exchanging that look more frequently the past few months.
“Something to help you relax,” Stan said, looking anything but at ease.
Moya’s stomach unclenched. She and Adam had guessed right. The uppers were a gamble but Moya had felt certain that her parents would slip her a mild sedative. The uppers would counter-act it at least a little. Everything inside her wanted to ask for more, whatever they had. She’d kept herself on a regimen of light sedatives all week, whatever it took to knock the edge off, but she knew it would only be a matter of time until her cravings won out and she’d take the harder stuff again. But that’s what today was about. Stopping the cravings for good, or at least learning how to fight them. “Okay,” she said, trying to keep her face neutral.
“What did you take?” Barbara asked.
“Nothing. I’d just like to change on my own. I’m fifteen.”
“You’re fourteen,” Stan said.
“I’m fifteen today,” Moya told him. She watched as realization dawned on their faces. “Happy Birthday to me.”
At least they had the decency to look embarrassed, even if it only lasted for a moment.
“Okay,” Stan said. “You can change on your own. Just today, because it’s your birthday.”
“Stan!” Barbara said. “You know we can’t leave her—”
Stan gave Barbara a look that made her stop talking mid-sentence. “This is a lot of trust Moya, especially after the last time.”
“The last time was over a year ago,” Moya said. “I’m fine. You checked my bags, my clothes, my room. There’s nothing here I can take.” Except you missed my phone and the uppers I stowed in my hollow hair brush.
“You almost died,” Barbara said.
“And if I had then you might not be able to afford your three-month trip to Europe this year.” She stepped back quickly, anticipating the slap. Barbara’s hand whiffed the air.
“Happy Birthday to me,” Moya repeated, this time there was no irony in her voice, only sadness.
Barbara shot her a glare and stomped out of the room.
“You shouldn’t antagonize your mother,” Stan said.
His face grew serious. “There’s…the power you have over people… you aren’t normal,” he said in a thick voice she’d only heard him use when her grandfather had died. “It’s stressful, raising a special child.”
Moya snorted. “So stressful that you have to use me to line your pockets?”
Stan shook his head. “Just be ready in ten minutes.”
He shut the door behind him as he left.
Moya slipped on her underthings followed by a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. She’d be out of them again as soon as they hit the beach and probably into some barely-there bikini. Beach shoots. They were the worst.
Stay strong, she told herself.
There were four models in today’s shoot so the scene would be nice and hectic. Moya hoped that slipping away for a bathroom break wouldn’t be too hard.
The beach was as chaotic as Moya had hoped. Four models, a photographer, five assistants, a six person hair and make-up crew, one executive from Cushy Bikinis and his entourage as well as four sets of stage parents, each with their own particular demands. She’d been hustled into a make-shift changing room, four curtains hung on the beach and secured with ropes tied to heavy weights, and given two pieces of string with a minuscule amount of cloth attached to them that served as a bikini. She didn’t fight her parents when they told her to change. They assumed that whatever sedative they’d slipped into her drink was making her pliable and Moya acted as if it were working.
She wished she’d been able to sneak her phone out of her hotel room, but if her parents had seen it then her whole plan would’ve been ruined. She and Adam had spent weeks preparing. It was him who’d scored her uppers, something he’d sworn he’d never do again. Adam. Her perfect Adam. The only one who truly understood her in this crazy world. The only one she could truly trust.
Moya tugged on the bikini and headed out into the glaring sun to be posed and used. The next hour flew by as she was positioned on large rocks and with the other models in front of surf boards. When they took a break to adjust the reflector boards for the changing angles of the sun, Moya told the photographer that she had to pee. He was checking his phone and she spotted the time, 6:42. That was fine, she knew that Adam would wait.
“Make it quick,” the photographer barked out as he discussed lighting with an assistant.
Moya took off. Usually, her mother would accompany her to the bathroom, but Barbara was in the middle of an argument with an intern as to why her mineral water didn’t have a wedge of lemon. Stan had been distracted by another model’s father. They were discussing their favorite cars.
Moya didn’t look back. She kept her pace quick as she headed to the port-o-potties.
“Miss Moya,” an intern said as he fell into step with her. “I just want to say that I’m your biggest fan.”
“Um, that’s great,” Moya said and sped up.
“I keep a collection of your photos.”
He had the pie-eyed look Normals got when they talked to her, that lost-in-the-headlights-of-love look. Irritation grabbed hold of her. She hated how everyone fawned all over her. Except for her parents and the other Models from her hometown, everyone would do exactly as she asked. It was sickening. Her father was right about one thing, she and her friends from Sortilege Falls definitely weren’t normal.
Moya threw a glance over her shoulder, and noticed that her father was looking around, probably for her. She turned to the intern. “Go run into the ocean and say you see a shark.”
“Okay!” He turned and ran screaming about sharks and pointing at the ocean.
Moya didn’t have to watch to know that he would jump in and swim out until he was far enough away from her to not feel her pull anymore. Then he would stop and wonder why he was in the ocean screaming his head off. She didn’t understand her power over people, but she wasn’t above using it to her advantage.
Moya ran, not knowing if Stan would’ve been drawn to the crazed intern, or if he’d spotted his daughter running away.
The McDonald’s was two blocks east. Her feet slapped hard against the concrete as she ran, but she didn’t care. “Hey,” she called to a homeless man laying on the street. “If you see a guy run after me, tackle him.”
“Sure,” the man said, giving her a gap-toothed grin.
She sped off. A moment later, she heard her father screaming her name and then screaming again in surprise followed by the sound of two bodies hitting the ground.
She saw the golden arches and kicked up the pace. Less than a block away. And there was Adam’s Corvette! Waiting for her in the parking lot.
Run faster! she told herself. She could hear her father’s footsteps behind her. It hadn’t taken him long to disentangle himself from the bum.
Adam spotted her and whipped out of the parking lot.
“Get in!” he yelled as he pulled up alongside her. She opened the door and dove in.
“Moya!” Stan called from down the block.
“Go, go, go!” Moya yelled.
They sped away from the beach, her photo shoot, and her parents.
“We made it. We actually made it!” Adam yelled.
Moya reached into the backseat and opened the bag that lay there. Clothes. Clothes that would actually cover her body.
“How far is it?” Moya asked.
“Uncle John, he set it up, right? They’re expecting me?”
Adam nodded. “If your dad tries to pull you out, your uncle’s going to sue for custody.”
Moya shivered as she pulled on her sweatshirt.
“Baby, are you okay? I’ll turn us around and drive us to Sortilege Falls right now if you want. We can do this in your uncle’s basement.”
“No,” Moya said. She stared at herself in the passenger seat mirror. She’d made herself a promise and she was going to keep it. “I’ve tried that. I need help if this is going to work.”
“I’m proud of you,” Adam said, taking her hand. “My parents rented an apartment for me a few blocks away. You’ll never be more than a few blocks from me.”
“I can’t have visitors for the first week.”
“It’s not about having visitors,” Adam said, “It’s about knowing you’ll never be alone. You will never be alone again. Not in rehab, and not in life.”
Moya smiled. She was going to get her life together and then she was going to demand that her parents not make her model anymore. And if they tried to force her, then Uncle John would sue for custody. She would only have to talk to the judge for a few minutes to get him to agree to make Uncle John her guardian. Her beauty came with power and she wasn’t afraid to use it, not if that power could save her life.
This story is set in the world of Welcome to Sortilege Falls.
Libby’s stories have appeared in multiple literary magazine. Her novel, WELCOME TO SORTILEGE FALLS, is available from Fire and Ice YA Publishing.
Visit her website:
[Because I Was There
by Christina Hoag]
Teen Sexually Assaulted at Reserve
My head cartwheels when I see the headline in the Monday edition of the Indian Valley Weekly News. It can’t be. No way. It has to be something else. Has to.
The din in the Burger-O-Rama dulls to a seashell roar in my ears as I read on, my eyes drawn to the black type like magnets.
A 19-year-old woman was sexually assaulted Friday night at a popular party hangout spot at the Indian Valley Mountain Reserve, police said.
[_The victim, whose identity is being withheld, was found by a park ranger in a dazed state as she wandered lost in the woods early Saturday morning. She reported that she had been sexually assaulted. _]
Indian Valley police said the investigation is ongoing and no further details were available. Anyone with any information is urged to contact police.
I feel socked in the gut. I can barely suck in any air. It’s not something else. It’s the same thing. And the fact is, I do have information.
Because I was there.
I look up at the sound of metal jangling. Morgan is sliding into the bench in front of me, bangles cascading on her wrists.
“What’s up with you, Jade? You look like your cat died or something.” She slurps her chocolate shake.
“I kind of feel sick all of a sudden.”
“Nah, must be something I ate.”
She glances at the newspaper lying on the table between us and stabs the story I’d just read with a forefinger. “You see that somebody got raped up at the reservation Friday night? Everybody’s talking about it.”
I manage a nod.
“I wonder who it was. We might even know them. Maybe Chloe knows. Looks like she wrote the story. I’ll ask her.”
Morgan whips out her cell phone before I have a chance to say anything. She thumbs in a message to our friend who’s doing an internship as a reporter at the Weekly News this summer. The message whooshes off. Morgan puts the phone down and frowns at me.
“You really don’t look so hot. You want a cup of water?”
“No. Well, maybe, yeah.”
“I’ll get it for you.” She sidles out of the booth. Her phone beeps, startling me. An incoming text. I pick it up. My hands feel flimsy, like cheap cardboard.
[_No other details. Cops don’t release names of rape victims. Heard it [email protected]_]
I drop the phone as if it’s scorched my palm. Morgan returns with the water and spots the flashing phone. “That was fast.”
I down the water as she reads the text out loud. She looks up, her eyes saucering. “The carnival! We were there Friday night. A lot of people were hanging out drinking later on. Remember? I’m really glad we left when we did.”
“Yeah.” A mouse could squeak louder.
This is my cue, to come out with it, the truth that I actually didn’t leave the carnival when Morgan thought I did. But I can’t. It’s a boulder inside me, too big for my throat, my mouth. It’s stuck.
Morgan peers at me. “You’re sweating and it’s practically a meat locker in here. You should go home, Jadykins. Go lie down a while.”
I touch my forehead. She’s right. It’s clammy. “Yeah, I think I will. You won’t be mad?”
“Of course not. I’ll stop by Cindy’s. You okay to drive?”
Truthfully, I don’t know. My legs feel like overcooked spaghetti, and I wonder if I can even stand up. But I have to. I yank the unspooling threads of myself together, say goodbye to Morgan and get to my car.
I drive robotically down Indian Valley Road. I don’t feel like dealing with the yammering of home—my Mom, my dog, my little brother—so I pull into the park.
I stroll to the bank of the duck pond and plonk myself down, folding my legs under the embrace of my arms. Pain shoots through my knee, bruised from my hurried stumble down the stony mountain trail. It brings back Friday night in a rush.
The cloying scent of pot and beer-sweet breath. The chill rolling off the dank lake. The yell, followed by a sharp crack that made me freeze for a moment then double my pace down the slope. As I tripped down the hill, I told myself that it could be anything—horseplay, a rock thrown, a branch snapped.
But in the well of my belly, I knew something wasn’t right, but I chose to justify it, ignore it, forget about it, but I can’t do that now. The shouted words ricochet around my brain: “Get off me!” The slap echoing off the rock.
I should have gone back. I should’ve called the police when I got the phone signal back at the road as I waited for the Uber. I shouldn’t have left her alone with that guy in the first place. But I didn’t do any of that.
She must really hate me now. Still, if she hadn’t started making out with that guy, I probably would’ve stayed. The other dude, Jeremy, who was obviously meant for me to pair up with, had passed out on the rock. I was cold, bored, and tired so I left. Was I totally to blame? That girl wasn’t really my friend anyway. I’d just met her.
My phone chirps. It’s a text from Mom.
[_I need the car to go to my book club. _]
A gush of irritability swells in me as I get to my feet. Now you need the car. If you’d needed the car Friday night, then I would’ve driven with Morgan and I would’ve left the carnival when she did and this mess never would have happened. I check myself as I limp to the parking lot, my knee screaming. I’m being totally irrational. It’s not my mom’s fault. It’s mine.
The underlying truth of the whole thing sears me as I start the car: If I tell what happened, I’ll be blamed for it. People will think I’m as bad as the rapist.
I turn into my street, half expecting a police car to be in my driveway, but there’s just the neighbor kid’s tricycle lying on its side. I resist the urge to run it over as I pull in, and walk into the kitchen, depositing the keys on the counter. “Here you go, Mom.”
“Thanks, sweetie. By the way, there was a sexual assault up at the Reserve last weekend. It was probably at that big boulder next to the lake.” My heart clutches. How does she always nail this stuff? “It’s a shame. It’s a nice place, but it’s always been a hangout for the rough crowd, even back in my day. They should just fence the whole place off. I hope you and your friends don’t go there. You have to be really careful.”
“We don’t hang out there, Mom.” That, at least, is true enough. I slink out of the kitchen under the weight of my untold lies before they crush me right there on the tile floor.
I fling myself on my bed. Caitlin, her name was Caitlin, and she had greasy hair but a smile that made her face blossom. I watched her win at the ring toss three times in a row at the carnival. “Hey, you’re good,” I’d said.
We started talking, then two guys came over. She introduced them to me so I figured they were her friends. The tall guy with a beard was Keith, and a shorter stockier sidekick, Jeremy. They were all older than me so when Keith invited us to hang out and drink some beers, and Caitlin hooked me with her eyes, I felt flattered.
There’s a rap at my door. “Hey Jade, it’s me.”
Morgan. I unpeel myself from the bed and open up. “I just wanted to see how you were, plus I have an update.” She walks in.
I figure Cindy wasn’t home so she decided to drop in. I flop back on the bed. “I think I’m worse, tell you the truth.”
“I just got a text from Chloe. They caught the rapist.”
I bolt upright. “They did?”
Morgan’s busy with her phone. “Chloe has a story on the website. Look.” She hands me her phone.
Arrest Made in Attack on Woman
A 21-year-old Crystal Lake man was arrested Monday in connection with an alleged sexual assault that occurred over the weekend at the Indian Valley Mountain Reserve.
Keith Laird was taken into custody at his home late Sunday night and is being held for questioning in connection with the alleged attack on a 19-year-old woman, police said.
Police said they are seeking another man in connection with the alleged assault, as well as a female witness identified only as ‘Jane.’
My stomach does that rollercoaster thing. I hope I’m not going to be sick.
“You know any Janes?” Morgan asks when I hand back her phone.
I shake my head as my heart pounds my ribs like it’s going to leap out.
But I know a Jade.
“Me neither.” She scrunches her face like she’s going through the yearbook in her head.
“Why do they say ‘alleged assault’ all the time?” I say. “Does that mean they don’t believe her?”
“Let’s ask Chloe.”
As Morgan punches out a text, I lie back on the bed. Should I tell her? If I do, she’ll be mad at me for lying to her and pretending to leave the carnival. She’ll yell at me for being so dumb to go off drinking with strangers. She’ll think I’m a real asshole for leaving Caitlin, for not going back. Maybe she won’t even want to be my friend anymore. And even if I swear her to secrecy, who am I kidding? She’ll tell other people. It’ll be all over the school in minutes.
Then I realize something. I don’t have to tell anyone. No one knows who I am. They think my name is Jane. I’m safe! Wait, did I tell her anything else about me? I remember telling her my friends and I come to the carnival opening night every year, and that my friend left early and I didn’t feel like going home.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell her anything factual that could trace me, like that I’m seventeen, going to be a senior at Indian Valley High and that I’m working in an animal shelter for the summer. We just talked about the carnival then the guys showed up.
I instantly feel about a hundred pounds lighter. I smash a pillow over my face to stifle a bubble of laughter.
“Chloe says they have to use alleged because the crime isn’t proven, especially with sexual assault when it’s a he-said-she-said situation, like he says she gave him permission, and she says he didn’t. What are you doing?”
I uncover my face to see Morgan giving me a weird look. “Nada. I’m feeling a little better.
“That’s good. Well, I better get going. I have to work the early shift tomorrow.”
I see her to the front door. When I return to my room, I jam my headphones on, crank up the volume and happy-dance to Beyoncé until I can’t catch my breath.
I wake up that night with the weight of a dumbbell pressing on my chest. My lungs scrape for air. I try to call for Mom but my voice strangles in my throat. Somehow, she hears me and bursts into my room. Sitting by my side, she rubs my back until the attack subsides.
“It’s a just a bad dream,” she says. “A nightmare. It’s not real.”
But it is. It is realer than real.
The next morning Mom gives me a worried look as I sit at the kitchen table and grab the cornflakes box. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” I say as I pour the cereal into the bowl. “Just a bad dream.”
“I noticed an odd Uber charge on the bank statement. Twenty-two dollars from just after midnight Friday. I thought you were at the carnival with Morgan that night.”
I trot out the story I’ve prepared, knowing she’d notice the charge. I’m supposed to use Uber only in emergencies. That night certainly qualified, though I can’t tell her exactly how.
“We went to Cindy’s house after the carnival in Morgan’s car. When we went to go home, her car wouldn’t start. I finally had to take an Uber back to my car in the carnival parking lot.”
“Twenty-two bucks for such a short distance?”
“It was surge pricing because it was the carnival opening night. Everybody was Ubering.”
“You never told me any of that.”
“I guess I forgot.”
I bury my head in my cornflakes, feeling a pang of guilt over my glibness and for so easily getting away with the fib. She believes me because I always tell her the truth, almost always, anyway. I just want that night to go away so I don’t have to tell any more lies. Then I remember, the cops got the guy. It’s over with. I can slam the door on this and forget it ever happened. I sprinkle more sugar on my cornflakes.
A couple days later, Morgan and I are floating on noodles in Cindy’s pool. The water is warm as syrup.
“So did you see? They let that guy go, the Reserve rape guy,” Cindy says from her inflatable lounger.
I perk up my head from the cradle of my arms on the noodle. “How could they let him go?”
“They had no evidence that it was rape,” she says. “That’s what Chloe’s story says.”
The sun dazzles my eyes as it flashes across my mind what must’ve happened. There was no evidence because ‘Jane’ was the only witness who could have said it was rape. And they never found ‘Jane’. She never came forward.
“I still wonder who the girl was,” Morgan says.
Anger pops inside me. “What does it matter who she was? It could have been you, me, any of us.”
“Well, it wasn’t,” Morgan says.
“They shouldn’t have let him go. He was guilty,” I blurt. The force of my tone takes me aback.
Morgan studies me over the rim of her sunglasses. I can feel the drill of her stare, wondering why I’m so revved up about this case. I close my eyes.
“How can you be so sure? Maybe she made it up, some kind of revenge thing,” Cindy says, waving off a mosquito divebombing her face. “It happens.”
“Rape happens, too,” Morgan says.
Then I know. I know what I should have done from the getgo because Morgan is right. Rape does happen. It can happen to anyone. It could’ve happened to me that night. I could’ve been the one who needed a witness. I could’ve have been the one who needed to be believed.
“I am sure,” I say. “Because I was there.”
This story is set in the world of Girl on the Brink.
Christina Hoag is the author of GIRL ON THE BRINK, a contemporary YA novel that was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She lives in Los Angeles.
Visit her website:
[New World Coming
by Mary Victoria Johnson]
The barge slides over black water, silent and unassuming. Although skiffs and punters are more common in these narrow canals, nobody pays it much more than a fleeting glance. These are the slums, choked by a mixture of fog and pollution, and no one more interesting than the opium barons ever use such waterways. The barge doesn’t appear to be carrying anything of value either, so the gangs of so-called street pirates watch it drift past, spinning their knives as they wait for a more tempting target.
The barge stops next to a dilapidated dock, causing a merchant to hastily pack away his stolen goods and vanish into the network of streets behind him. A woman disembarks, pausing to retrieve the bowler hat he left behind. She holds it in her hands for a moment, then lifts her eyes to survey the sprawling city before her. Her expression is hard, unyielding.
“I’ve paid for passage.” Another woman steps off the barge, stumbling with the legs of someone who has been at sea for too long. “But we haven’t got enough for lodgings. Or food, for that matter.”
“We don’t need money,” the first woman says. “Even in London, we still have connections.”
“Still?” Her partner isn’t convinced. “It’s been two years.”
“Two years is nothing, Melody. They will remember.”
Melody nods, although the gesture is almost a bow.
In all, thirteen people exit the barge and follow the woman into the slums beyond. Their clothes are threadbare, blending in with the native inhabitants seamlessly. Still, there is something in the way they carry themselves that draws curious frowns from those who care to pay attention—especially the woman.
“Are you not worried about being seen?” Melody whispers, noticing this.
The woman smiles without humour. “Nobody here ever saw my face. And if anyone happens to recognize me, such rumours could be used to our advantage. Nothing would scare my dear brother more than tales of me returning to haunt the east side.”
“Indeed not,” Melody agrees, hiding her own smile.
The party pushes deeper into the city, sidestepping oil-spewing pipes and beggars with clutching hands, only stopping when an airship from the west side flies overhead and darkens the sky.
“Private,” a man mutters to the woman. “Not imperial.”
“You think I can’t tell?” She watches it disappear over the rooftops.
In silence, the thirteen don’t stop walking until they reach an inn, perched right on the borderline between the slums and the blue-collar wharf district. A sign swinging from overhead proclaims it to be ‘The Empress’, although the ‘P’ is missing. The woman regards this, almost amused.
Patrons later swore that no money was ever exchanged between the innkeeper and the party. A hushed conversation and muffled gasp later, all thirteen simply walked upstairs to the lodgings as though it was their own house.
“Would you like me to take first watch?” Melody asks.
“We aren’t in the safest part of town, Majesty,” a young man says. “Even if you—”
“Do not call me that,” she interrupts, stiffening. “Not until it means anything again.”
In the distance, it is possible to see the spires of St. Paul’s Cathedral from her window. The woman isn’t interested in the view, though; she sits on her narrow bed, staring at her gaunt reflection in the cracked and grimy mirror hanging over the vanity. It has been two years since she last saw her reflection, and she barely recognizes herself. Her dark brown hair is stringy, greasy, still tied in knotted Sidastan braids. The bones in her jaw and cheeks are more pronounced than she remembers, and not in an attractive way; she’s always had a harshness about her features, and the lost weight makes her look like a nightmare. A nattmara, Jorun would say. I have stories about those.
She turns away from the mirror, more unnerved by the fondness of the memory than her reflection.
Majesty. The word rings in her head.
Throughout exile, she had been called many things by the local people. Illmenni. Villain. Mordinger. Murderer. Utanadkomandi. Outsider. Drottninga. Queen.
Despite all the pain it took to ensure her return to England, she can’t help but think of that desolate island. The black sand beaches, endless tundra, volcanic mountains, and steel-grey sea. She doesn’t believe in magic, although even she could never deny the power surrounding Sidasta.
Her fingers flicker to a woven band of feathers and leather around her wrist.
“This is not a gift. This is so you never forget to uphold your end of the bargain.”
Again, the woman’s mind returns to Jorun. The loathing behind her uncanny blue eyes, ever since she’d been forced to bury her friends. The grudging respect that had come afterwards. The plan that enabled both their freedoms.
That had been her brother’s fatal mistake. Exiling to her an island of seafarers who wanted her gone just as much as she wanted to leave. He underestimated them, just as she had too, long ago.
“If yer gonna read it, yeh gotta pay,” the newspaper girl hisses. “This ain’t no library.”
The woman ignores her, scanning the pages with tight lips. Nothing in particular dominates the headlines, most articles detailing petty society scandals and, politically, improved relations with the Austrian Empire. NEW GOLDEN AGE: HALF A CENTURY AFTER VICTORIA’S ASSASSINATION, BRITAIN FINALLY ENJOYS TOTAL PEACE.
“Would you like to see what I’ve found?” Melody appears over her shoulder, proffering a different newspaper. “There’s an all-too-familiar name in this one.”
The headline is long and rambling. Something about two Inventoriums —centres of technological progress—dominating the industry, fostering a friendly rivalry. Ascendance, run by the brilliant Sebastian Ross, and Vanguard, run by Donovan Straughter and his aristocratic wife, Romilly.
The woman’s grip tightens, crumpling the paper.
“She recovered from her little transgression, then. A coup to kill the king, and now she’s back at the top of the social order again.”
“We never meant to kill him,” the woman corrects sharply. The flash of emotion fades. “We need to arrange a meeting.”
“With Romilly?” Melody’s smile curls with something like hunger. “Excellent.”
“No. We’ll deal with her—with all the traitors—but not yet. For now, we need to meet with Sebastian Ross.”
“Ross?” Melody blinks, disappointment evident.
The woman returns the newspaper to the girl, who is clearly eavesdropping, and motions for Melody to follow.
“This time, we need more than numbers. We need firepower. People with real influence,” she explains. “People who have just as much to gain as we do. Loyalty, as our dear Romilly proved, means nothing. We need brains like Sebastian Ross, not just soldiers.”
“But why would he join us?”
“Weapons are extraordinarily profitable during wartime. Ascendance and Vanguard won’t want to fight for the same side, or they’ll be stuck trying to out-compete each other.”
“An arms race.”
“Exactly.” The woman drops her voice, speaking of strongholds in Scotland and hidden treasuries in catacombs and powerful allies.
The newspaper girl, unable to hear anymore, stops following them. She’s heard enough to earn herself a bonus anyway, and returns to her boss with a new skip in her step.
A few miles away from the squalor of London’s east side, the red-bricked expanse of Hampton Court Palace sits surrounded by acres of emerald lawn. A gardener, experimenting with a new mowing contraption, is the only soul around to break the calm, cursing furiously under his breath.
Inside, in a room decorated with priceless portraits and ornate guilding, King Alexandre sits playing with his infant daughter, laughing as she tries again and again to stand without toppling over. His wife, Isolde, hovers nearby, also laughing.
The door swings open, cutting them both off. A young woman, still her late teens, enters brandishing a newspaper as though it might try and bite her.
“She’s back!” she cries. “Have you not seen? She’s come back!”
“Who?” Alexandre asks, although he already knows the answer.
“Our sister, that’s who.” Georgiana swallows her hysterics. “Every paper is buzzing with rumours. They say she’s here in London.”
Isolde picks up her child and, with a meaningful glance at Alexandre, leaves for the nursery.
Alexandre doesn’t speak for a while. He stands, straightens his coat, and nods for Georgiana to give him the newspaper.
“There have been rumours of her return since the beginning,” he murmurs. “There’s never—”
“Not like this,” Georgiana interjects. “They say they overheard her talking about Ascendance and Vanguard. Don’t you see? She’s looking for weapons. She’s coming for us.”
“Even if she is back—which is highly, highly unlikely—she’s got nothing. People see her for what she is now; they won’t help her.”
Georgiana, realizing she’s shaking, collapses onto a settee. At fifteen years old, she’d had to decide which of her siblings to defend and which to fight against, knowing the terrible consequences of choosing wrongly. She’s never doubted Alexandre, yet the prospect of having to fight her sister again terrifies her.
“This is how it started last time,” she whispers. “Gossip.”
“She’ll never win back popular support,” Alexandre says vehemently, the brass buttons on his jacket catching the light of the chandelier as he paces. His agitation makes him look younger—he was only nineteen when their sister tried to kill him. “Besides, she can’t…how could she have escaped? That blasted island was hundreds of miles from civilization, and even if… ”
A hum and burst of smoke from outside announce the gardener’s success with the mowing machine. For a moment, Alexandre and Georgiana listen to it, lost in their own thoughts. Then Alexandre shakes his head and walks towards the door.
“I’ll increase security,” he tells Georgiana, not looking back. “I’ll assign a team to monitor these rumours, and I’ll put eyes on Ascendance and Vanguard. She won’t get away with this again.”
Georgiana listens, trying and failing to garner a sense of relief.
“But what if they find something? What if they find her?”
“Then we’ll deal with it.” Alexandre’s tone grows cold, all too similar to his elder sister.
Georgiana notices this and shudders. After a few steady breaths, she manages to stop herself from shaking.
Ascendance’s headquarters are in Penzance, Cornwall, three-hundred miles west of London. Their parlour is simple, quaint, tucked inside a wrought-iron conservatory with a view of the coast. But amongst the normal items, the chairs and lamps and tables, there are stranger objects too; a clockwork harlequin lying discarded on the floor, a spinning bronze sextant, and a light bulb that keeps changing colours.
Sebastian Ross offers no explanation for all this, only tea. He’s young, handsome, and brilliant. Once upon a time, the woman would’ve been captivated. Now her face shows less emotion than the harlequin.
“Weapons aren’t my speciality,” Sebastian admits. “I’ve never really played around with them before.”
“Because you’ve never had to,” the woman retorts, sipping her tea. “When war comes —which it will— you’ll have no choice.”
Sebastian’s smile slips into a frown. “Surely there’s another way.”
“Asking nicely doesn’t work. I’ve tried it before.”
His smile returns with her attempt at humour, although his body language continues to betray his discomfort.
“I don’t want my inventions to be used to kill people, that’s all. You’re speaking to the wrong man.”
The woman puts down her cup. “No. I don’t think I am.”
At that moment, two other women enter the conservatory, chatting. One is dark-haired and painted in make-up. The other resembles a porcelain doll, a thick auburn plait dwarfing her tiny body.
“Oh, darling, I didn’t realize you were having a meeting!” one says.
Sebastian looks embarrassed. “No matter.” Turning to the woman, he says, “Might I introduce Rosa, my wife, and Lady Romilly Straughter, our friend from Vanguard.”
Romilly’s porcelain features flush a deep, burning red as she locks eyes with the woman. Her mouth opens and closes.
The cry comes from the corner of the conservatory, where Melody has been standing silently. Before anyone has time to react, she’s pinned Romilly against a wall and flattened a knife against her throat.
“Give—me—one—good—reason—not—to—gut—you,” Melody spits. “You filthy traitor.”
“Ladies!” Sebastian exclaims, alarmed.
“Why is she here? Seb, what are you doing?” Rosa holds him back, looking equally horrified.
Romilly’s skin is taking on a blueish pallor, her mouth still gaping.
“Melody, stop,” the woman says. “Not yet.”
Melody hesitates, then wrenches away. Romilly collapses in a puddle of silk.
“Get those two out of here,” Rosa whispers. “Seb, do you hear? I want them out.”
Sebastian doesn’t have to echo this. The woman and Melody apologise and leave without trouble.
“I’m sorry,” Melody mutters. “She was my best friend. Her, me, and… you know who. I can’t forgive her.” She pauses, biting a gold-painted lip. “I’ve ruined things, haven’t I?”
“He’ll contact me later. Everyone has a price, and Sebastian Ross is no exception.”
“Does he know we can’t pay him?”
The woman laughs. “Confidence, my dear. It’s the illusion that counts at this stage.”
Before leaving Cornwall, the woman stops at a telephone station. They’re brand new, and she has to watch a line of people struggle with using it before her turn comes. When the line dwindles, she dials a number with complete ease.
“Hello?” a voice at the other end says, confused. “Who is this?”
“Georgie?” The woman’s own voice wavers. “Georgie, it’s me.”
A static pause.
“Listen, Georgie…” She inhales, hardening herself. “I’ve been thinking. Last time I didn’t give you any notice, but…it’s not you I’m fighting here. You know what’s coming. I want to give you the option of choosing a side.”
There’s a click as the phone disconnects.
The woman sighs.
Georgiana clutches the telephone in her hand, choking back a scream.
You know what’s coming.
“Are you alright?” Alexandre asks, walking in. “Who was on the telephone?”
“No one.” She says it without thinking.
Alexandre, accepting this, begins chatting about his daughter’s attempt to say ‘Dada’. Georgiana watches him but doesn’t listen.
He’s not a fighter. Any toughness he possesses was put there by his sister and the pressures of being king.
You know what’s coming.
This time, there would be no pretending. This time, if it came to war, it would be all-out. And in her heart of hearts, Georgiana isn’t sure if Alexandre can win again.
I want to give you the option of choosing a side.
Georgiana hates herself for even considering it. But as she continues to watch Alexandre speak happily about his child, she can’t help searching herself, wondering if she’d really be able to betray her brother in order to survive.
This story is set in the world of The Ashes and the Sparks and The Inventress.
Mary Victoria Johnson is a full-time student and author of Young Adult fiction. In her spare time —okay, fine, she has no spare time, but if she did, she’d probably be doing something involving travel, general daydreaming, or rare books. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter (@), or at
[The First Secret
by Shelley R. Pickens]
You never forget your first time. Your palms are sweaty. You breathing gets faster. Your mind is alert with the first touch. Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of feelings that invade your brain. It’s supposed to be the most amazing experience of a lifetime.
Until you realize that you are witnessing a murder.
Well, not a murder in real time, at least.
My name is Aimee and I was born with the power to absorb memories. One touch to your skin, and I download every little dirty secret harbored within the depths of your brain. Nowhere is safe. No one is safe. The world of secrets is literally at my fingertips.
But I don’t welcome it. Who would? After all I’ve seen since my powers came to be, I have no reason to believe anyone in this world is worth saving. So much horror, so much death resides within the minds of humans that I have no serious doubts as to our maker. I would love to believe that a benevolent, gracious, ever forgiving being made humans in His image. Well, if that’s true, then something else evil filled their minds.
But that’s another story for another place and in a whole other time. What I long for is the days when I had no other memories than my own. The days before my twelfth birthday when life was simple and my vision was innocent. The days before darkness took over my life.
The day of my twelfth birthday began like any other day, with my foster mom yelling at me.
“Girl, if you don’t get down here in two minutes I’m coming up to drag you out of bed myself. School bus will be here in five minutes!” she finishes, her voice at an all-time high pitch.
I groan as I climb out of bed and practically fall to the floor. My feet barely keep me up as I walk to the bathroom and splash some water on my face. I pull my blonde hair out of my face and tie it back with a rubber band. I look up into the mirror and take note of the dark circles under my blue eyes. Huh. Guess I shouldn’t have stayed up so late reading. But the book was so good, I couldn’t help myself.
I brush my teeth before putting on my favorite light purple t-shirt with my jeans and fly out of my room, the threats from my foster mother, Jordan, getting closer.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I yell back to her, fatigue adding a bite to my words. I fly down the stairs and run through the door to the kitchen, almost running into Jordan in the process.
“Slow down and pay attention to where you are going,” she lectures.
“Yes, ma’am,” I reply, doing my best to behave.
“Good. Now sit and eat quickly before your eggs get cold. The bus will be here in 8 minutes and I can’t drop you off today. I have to get to work early so I can leave early.”
I dutifully sit down and start eating my eggs. I shove half an egg into my mouth, adding a bite of toast to it for good measure. “Why you leaving early?” I garble.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to talk with your mouth full?” she responds, exasperated. “Besides, you know full well why I have to leave early. I have to pick up some birthday girl’s cake.”
I smile, chuckling gleefully while shoving a few more bites into my mouth. I hope that my friends at school bought me a present!
“Remember, I’m picking you up from school early today. We need to clean a bit more before your friends come over for the party.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say to her, taking my plate to the sink and rinsing it off before placing it into the dishwasher. Dutiful daughter is a must when you are a foster child who desperately wants to stay put more than a few months at a time.
I hug Jordan quickly before grabbing my backpack and heading out the door to catch the bus. Spring has sprung so the day is already warm, the breeze nice against my skin. I take a deep breath and head left, walking the block to my bus stop.
I haven’t walked far before I see a strange man I’ve never seen before standing on the sidewalk two houses down from mine. He’s wearing a long black trench coat and black loafers. I can’t see his face very well since it’s hidden by a large cowboy-looking hat, also black. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I start breathing harder, a natural reaction to fear of the unknown, I guess. I slow down a bit, cautious of the stranger but not truly scared yet. I contemplate crossing the road so I don’t have to pass him, but I realize that I’m being silly. The bus should be here any minute.
I hug the book bag closer to my chest and put my head down, refusing to acknowledge the man lurking about. I start to cross the street, determined to take the longer, safer route, but look up happily when I hear the bus coming down the street. It’s still far away, but just knowing that salvation is on its way makes me feel safer.
Distracted by the bus, I don’t realize that I’m so close to the man lurking about until his arm jets out and grabs me around the waist. I can’t talk at first, the arm of steel around my stomach momentarily has taken my breath away. The man clutches me with his hands as he drags me behind my neighbor’s house. I fight him, but his grip is too strong, and the pressure on my lungs is immense. When I finally do find some air, I start to scream as loudly as I can. Quickly, his surprisingly clean hand comes up to cover my mouth, effectively cutting off any chance that I had of alerting someone.
But I soon realize that is the least of my problems.
The second the man’s skin touches my lips, I feel dizzy. My vision, once perfectly clear, becomes cloudy. My mind shuts off completely to the sights and sounds around me. The world, once familiar, is now completely dark. I can’t see or hear anything. I can breathe, but I taste nothing. It’s like someone has put a dark cloth over my head, shutting out the world. The only world I’ve ever known.
Then, all of the sudden, pictures invade my mind. They come at me like arrows from the darkness, piercing my brain one after another. They come so quickly that I can’t process any of them yet. I hear voices within the pictures, but I can’t quite make out what they are saying. My mind scrambles to try and figure out what’s going on but I’m at a loss, none of the pictures look familiar to me.
My head hurts. I have no idea where I am since my world is dark, and the pictures keep invading my brain. Since they’ve slowed down, it doesn’t hurt as much as it did when they started. But now that I can see what each picture is and feel and hear everything said within the pictures, I wish like hell that the darkness would come back.
The pictures began like a story. A young boy, growing up on a farm, playing with the chickens and running through the corn fields. I could almost feel the warmth of the sun on my face. I could hear his laughter as he ran, dodging the ears as he went.
But I could also feel his pain.
The pain inflicted upon him by a father whose only job is to love him unconditionally. The anger he harbored at his mother for not protecting him. The betrayal of the older brother who simply ran away and abandoned him. Soon, the pictures turn dark. The running in the sunlight is overtaken by anger and sadness. Anger takes over all facets of his life. His friends leave him. Every girl he meets, avoids him. Loneliness begins to consume him.
With no outlet for his anger, he turns to torturing those around him. He isn’t brave enough to stand up to his father yet, so he begins by training on small animals. Once that isn’t enough, he starts on larger animals that fight back. I’m forced to watch as he does horrible things to these sweet animals. My mind literally hurts with images that my subconscious refuses to process. I try to close my eyes, but then I realize that everything is already dark. There’s no way out, I’m forced to watch. Even if I could find a way to avoid seeing these images, it wouldn’t matter. Along with every image comes emotion. Raw, unchecked, gut-searing emotion.
I try to shut off my mind as the images become gorier and more grotesque. I’ve seen anger, watched as people acted out of spite, but I’ve never seen or felt anything like this. I’ve even been bullied a few times by a big kid in my class. But nothing I’ve experienced in my short twelve years of life compares to this type of evil.
Unable to process anything, I start to cry. Somewhere deep inside, I pray that all of this will end soon, even if it’s with my death. Death would be quick, and infinitely preferable to this enduring torture.
Finally, the pictures slow to one final scene slowly entering my consciousness. I can feel the ebbing of the flow. Instinctively, I sense that this picture is the last one. Relief fills me as I realize that this torture is almost over.
At least, I thought it was.
In this last image, the man is dressed exactly as he is now. His long trench coat, practically brand new, billows out behind him as he walks towards the barn on his property. I can feel his elation, practically taste his anticipation of what’s to come. He dips his hat lower on his head as he turns the lever and opens the large door to the barn. Inside, there are no animals. Just hay and a whole bunch of empty stalls that used to hold horses. The old light hanging down from the middle of the barn by a single cord sways back and forth, illuminating the cob webs in every corner as it passes by. The barn may no longer house any animals, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t occupied.
In the middle of the large center area, down on her bloody knees and sobbing, sits a girl with long brown hair. Her mouth is covered with duct tape and her hands and feet are tied together with rope. She looks up as he enters, fear and dread written all over her face. I feel his excitement and swallow back vomit. I watch, helplessly, as he moves toward the girl, walking purposefully, enjoying every single second of her fear.
It isn’t long after he reaches her, that he takes the large serrated knife from its holster on his hip and in one single, ferocious motion, slits her throat. Instantly, gallons of blood gush from the wound on her neck. She gasps for air, her body doing its best to survive even though it knows that death is imminent. Weak from blood loss, she begins to fall to the right, death claiming her before her head hits the ground. But it’s her eyes that capture me, their expression of fear is gone. All I can see now is relief. Relief to finally have death claim her pain and her fear.
And with that realization, my innocent twelve-year-old soul breaks in two. Forever torn asunder, with little to no hope of repair.
With that one last horrendous, murderous act, the images cease and my world becomes clear again. As the light enters my consciousness and my eyes clear, I see the blue sky appear above me. I’m disoriented and sick to stomach. I turn my head to the left and smell grass. I have a sinking feeling that I didn’t get much further than the wet grass in the back yard of my neighbor’s house. I look to my right and see the man sitting on the grass, comatose and staring right at me. I want to yell, cry, fight and hit him but I remain stubbornly still. Hopefully the murderous look on my face is enough.
His eyes narrow. “Did you do that to me?” he asks, confused and angry.
I say nothing. But I honestly don’t know if it’s out of fear, bravery or self-doubt.
“Answer me, bitch,” he seethes, his face turning red. “Did you just make me see all of those things?”
“You’re going to burn in hell for what you’ve done,” I say with more bravado than I feel. Well what do you know, I have a voice after all.
Despite his obvious anger, there’s an underlying emotion that won’t let him hurt me—fear. Fear of a small, blonde haired girl that just saw every little dirty secret he harbored deep within.
And with that realization, the man scrambles to get up and runs off in the opposite direction of the street. I sit up, but lie back down immediately as vertigo hits me. I lie there until it passes, and then I lie there some more. I have no idea how long I stayed in the grass of my neighbor’s small yard, I only know that I am incapable of moving.
One touch, one act of evil irrevocably changed my life. I can’t go back to the way it was, yet I’m now so terrified of this world that I have no desire to be a part of it. I drag myself up off the ground and make my way back to the house. I rip off my favorite shirt and jeans and throw them in the trashcan in my bedroom. The innocent girl that wore those no longer exists.
I take a shower, hoping to wash off all the ugly things I just saw but it doesn’t help. I dry off and go to my closet to get dressed, but I don’t want to wear any of my favorite things anymore. There’s only one color that now depicts what I feel in my heart.
I throw on a black shirt and black jeans, the color comforting me. I sit on the bed and slip on my black socks, the outfit now effectively reflecting my soul inside.
As I make my way downstairs I can’t help but think how my world has changed. My life, once full of innocence and color, now only holds darkness. But at least there’s one silver lining to the awfulness that has seeped into my life.
Beware world, your secrets are no longer safe.
This story is set in the world of The Haunting of Secrets.
Shelley Pickens has been in love with everything paranormal since she can remember. Her escape from reality is her love of complex thriller and science fiction TV series like Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow. In her spare time, she is an avid watcher of little league softball. THE HAUNTING OF SECRETS is her debut novel.
Visit her website:
[Girl in a Camp
I press my face against the wire, peering out into the desert, narrowing my eyes against the sudden gusts of hot breeze that throw sand into the Camps. The metal is hot on my cheeks, and if I reach higher, my hands close on the knife-sharp barbs that form four vicious lines against the scorching sky. Is it to keep others out, or to keep us in? I can never decide. I am sure though, that at fifteen, I never thought I’d be imprisoned in a refugee camp in my own country. My only aim is to escape.
“Hey, Talia! Are you coming to lessons?”
I swing round, abandoning my desert dreams. Petres, my younger brother, is barefoot as usual, but at his belt hangs a new leather knife sheath. His hair is ruffled in the breeze and his brown face and dark eyes look older than his years. I suppose we all do.
“No. Not today. Where did you get that?”
“But you always go! Come on, Talia. You’re the one always going on about how we need an education to get out of here,” He ignores my questions, his face a perfect picture of little boy innocence.
I push my plaits back under my pink headscarf, studying him in silence, until he shifts uncomfortably in the dust. “Petres, you are the one who is always saying you don’t need school and we need to find another way out. What are you doing?” My voice comes out sharper than I mean in to be, but amongst the crowds of displaced kids in the Camps, there is a whole load of danger. And Petres is always right at the heart of it.
He comes closer, glancing quickly at the Guards in the nearest watchtower, some two hundred yards to our left. “Come on, Talia, I’m doing this for both of us. I need you to walk with me to lessons, then go in as normal.”
“Why? Are you dealing again?”
“They’re our daisies, and our drugs…” He shrugs, and I catch a glint of anger that sharpens his expression, and turns him from mischievous kid to…to what? Someone prepared to do anything for money, and someone who hates not only the Warlords who invaded our country, but the Peacekeepers who are trying to help.
“Please, Talia. I’m doing this for us. Do you think I like seeing my sister living in a tent in the dirt and dust? I need you in school, out of the way, so I can just borrow your tent for a meeting.”
Drugs are an excellent way to make money and the Camps are full of various gangs trading not only drugs, but sex, weapons and pretty much anything, just to make enough money to get out.
I narrow my eyes at my brother. “Just a meeting, not as storage for any packages okay?”
“Promise to the desert!” he says, licking one finger and holding it up to dry in the breeze.
“Okay…I’ll do it, but only this one time.” I bend quickly towards him and peck his cheek.
He rubs my kiss away. “Yuck! Talia!” Then he smiles, and holds out a hand.
I slip my fingers in his as we start to walk. A plane roars overhead, circling low and making an approach onto the runway carved in the desert. The military base is right next to the Camps, so the roar of aircraft and armoured vehicles, the shouts of the soldiers, and the rattle of bullets in the distance are part of our lives.
The tracks between the tent rows are ground to dust, the sand dirty with constant trampling of a hundred feet, and stinking rubbish overflowing from sacks and bins. Plastic water bottles bearing the logo of various Peacekeepers litter our path. In a clearing, a few younger kids are playing football with the bottles. They are yelling encouragement at each other, half-naked bodies streaked with dust, forgetting it all in the intensity of the game.
There are thousands of displaced people living in the Camps, all driven from their homes in Arista when the Warlords in neighbouring Leonore decided to invade. Our country used to be rich with oil, and the medicinal purple daisies people call illumas, but now these things make money for the Warlords and we have nothing. The [_illumas _]is the greatest loss, and the most valuable on the black market. Which is why the gangs in the Camps covet it, and the rebels from the mountains steal it.
I wave at Leda, my mentor, who is hurrying up the path towards the ugly, concrete block that serves as a school. Our old school was under a grove of olive trees.
“Come on, Talia, you’ll be late,” Leda calls, adjusting a basket of books and wiping sweat from her forehead.
I pause at the barbed gates, and Petres grins. “You need to trust me more, Talia. I’m not a baby anymore. Look, I’m all grown up!” He spreads his arms and spins on the spot.
I lean close, wary of the knots of children drifting unenthusiastically towards the school. “If you carry on dealing illumas you’ll be dead. I know more than you think, and you can’t rely on your stupid friends to help you out. The Warlords will kill all of you without even thinking. I know the daisies were ours, but at the moment they are not.”
His face darkens, eyes remote. “Like they killed Mama you mean? Because that’s why I’m doing this. Oh, there’s no point even talking to you. You’ll see.”
I watch as he nips sharply to the left, past the last row of filthy canvas, and into the shadows of the military base. My heart aches with fear, and tears wet my cheeks. If Petres is killed I will have nobody, and all the days I have spent trying to keep him warm, and fed and happy will end at the wrong end of a Warlord’s gun. I love him dearly, but I know I’m going to lose him.
Overhead, the huge birds of the desert wheel, and twist, riding on the hot air, wings outstretched as they drift towards the mountains and freedom. A sudden wave of sadness covers my heart, like a cloud over the sun. Perhaps Petres is right and there is no point. I almost turn and head back to my position by the wire, but Leda is still looking for me.
“Talia! Come on, we are about to start.”
I shrug, and she comes closer, her brown curls softening a hard face, blue eyes concerned. “Listen, I know how hard life is for you at the moment…”
Not caring that I might lose her too, I interrupt. “You don’t! You have no idea what it’s like to see a Warlord murder your mother. You don’t know what it’s like to be herded around like an animal, to be kept behind barbed wire and only given water and food if you bring a stupid ID card.” I’m breathing fast, tears still blurring my vision.
“No.” Somehow her arms are around me, and although my body is rigid with anger for a second, I can feel the beating of her heart, hear the genuine concern in her voice. “Talia, I want to help you, but you must let me.” She releases me and takes my face is both her hands. “This math we are learning, the books we are reading are easy for you aren’t they?”
I nod, blinking in the hot sun, furious at having let my guard down.
“Before I joined the Peacemakers, and I volunteered to help in Arista, I was a seamstress. I still am, and it is what I’ll do when I go home. I mean to have my own shop one day!” She smiles at me, and I feel my own mouth reluctantly curving upwards.
“Why don’t I teach you to sew? You could make dresses, gloves, all sorts of things, and then have a stand at the market to sell them. Make your own money, Talia, and then you won’t have to worry that you only have one slice of bread left for a whole two days. It’s the beginning of way out for you.”
I consider this, half watching the long line of people gathering at the standpipe with buckets, bowls and plastic bottles. Beyond the Camps, the desert called The Barren Lands, separates Arista and Leonore. In the heat haze the city of Leonore is just a line of dotted black of the horizon, but I know the streets are paved with gold. Not literally, but certainly a better place to be than my own country.
“They might not let me apply to the market.”
“Of course they will. I have several teenagers who could easily start their own business, so I will apply for all of you.” Leda is determined. “Now come on inside and do your lessons, and we’ll start sewing after school.”
I smile at her. “Thanks, Leda,” and follow her into the concrete and wire.
After school, Leda, takes me to the Peacekeepers tents, and we sit down on the sand with a box of magic between us.
The scraps of coloured silk, printed cotton, reels of ribbon and squares of wash leather instantly suggest ambitious designs, and my fingertips tingle with energy as Leda shows me how to stitch and sew, to chalk patterns, make ruching and lace. Not all in that first lesson of course, but I learn a little more each day, and take my work home. Sitting in the tent as the day creeps into night, I work hard on my skills, sketching tentative patterns in the sand, before transferring them to precious fabric. By the end of the third week, I have made my first cotton frock from scraps donated by international charities.
Delighted, Leda slips in overhead and I stand in front of a dirty, cracked piece of mirror to admire my work.
The glass shows a dress of many colours, of stripes and spots and a strange vivid pink, but it fits neatly, and the skirt floats and swirls as I spin in my bare feet. My dark, tanned skin emphasises my green eyes, and my long pale hair is free for once from plaits and scarves. I look happy, and the thought catches me by surprise.
“Thank you, Leda!” I beam at my mentor, as she stands, arms folded, framed by towers of bottled water, and scruffy cardboard boxes bearing aid stickers.
“You learn really fast, Talia, and I’m so proud of you. I’ll apply for a market stall next month, and I have sorted out a box of fabric and essentials to get you started. Look, and some price tags, calculator, notebooks, and oh, this big sewing kit can go in too.”
“But Leda you can’t give me all this stuff! Where does it come from?” I stare wide-eyed at the treasures she is loading into a big cardboard box.
“Charities. They send a lot of things we need, and some we don’t. This is enough to start you off, and then it will be up to you to buy materials and balance your books so you have money to buy more materials.” Leda smiles at me.
“Really?” Still in my crazy dress I accept the offerings, heart beating faster, and my dreams getting crazy big. A way out, and something I can actually do to make it happen.
I almost dance out of the tent and slap into one of Petres friends. Like someone bursting a balloon my euphoric mood spins off into the desert air. Mika is a tall, good-looking boy, deeply tanned by the hot sun, and as usual wears nothing but torn shorts and a knife belt. He deals illumas daisies, steals from the military base and according to Petres kills anyone who gets in his way. He is the same age as me.
“Hi, Talia, I have a message from Petres.” He grins lazily, showing very white teeth, and puts a hand out to touch my arm.
I move backwards, clutching my treasure. Mika, like Petres, looks cute when he is doing something wrong and, also like my brother, this has so far kept him out of the worst of the trouble. He might cause the trouble, but he rarely suffers the consequences.
“What do you want?” I start walking towards my tent, weaving around a couple of mangy stray dogs fighting over a bone, and dodging a group of women carrying water in bowls on their heads.
Mika keeps pace with me easily. “Like I said, I have a message from Petres. He wants you to do something for him.” He frowns. “He owes me, Talia, and he wants you to repay the debt.”
Like a naive idiot, I still don’t get it. “But I don’t have any money! How much does he owe you?”
We reach my tent and I duck under the canvas, carefully putting my box in the corner. Mika follows and we sit cross-legged on my pallaise. The sand is raked, the wooden boxes stacked with a few clean utensils and bowls, and a few blankets are folded in the corner. My home is bare and drab. Petres moved out weeks ago, to live in a larger tent with another group of boys. In many ways that was a relief.
“So? I just said I don’t have any money. Petres knows that.” He is sitting too close, our arms touching. I can smell his sweat.
“You know Petres has been trying to set up by himself?”
“No. He doesn’t tell me anything. You mean as a dealer?” I frown. This is worse than I thought.
“Yes, but he doesn’t have enough money to start up from nothing so I offered him a half share.” Mika is smiling now, and casually slides a hand down my bare leg.
I slap him away, “Please tell me this isn’t what I think it is!” The treachery of my own brother makes me sick to the core. He can’t possibly think . . .
Mika nods, leaning away from me, lying back on my bed, hands behind his head, “He knows you don’t have any money either but he also knows I think you are very beautiful.” The dark eyes sparkle, and his mouth curves, “It’s quite a lot of money too, and I wouldn’t do a trade like this for anyone. Come on Talia, it’s just sex!”
I think of Petres laughing at me in the sunshine, his hand in mine, his clear voice telling me that what he was doing was the best for both of us. If I was going to make money from sex I could have done so already. But I won’t. I’m shaking, but quickly hide it. The only way to win is to be smarter than everyone else. Mika is far stronger than me physically, but I know I can talk him down, targeting that arrogance. I push down a wave of nausea.
“Look, Mika, I’m really flattered, but there is no way that is going to happen. Firstly, my brother has no right to offer my body in return for anything. I make my own decisions. Secondly, that you should know, before you made this stupid pact, if you had asked me, I would have gone with you as your girlfriend ages ago —for free.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You hate me!” He is shocked at my answer, and shows it, eyes wide. His expression snaps back from that lazy grin, into something far younger and less confident.
This is so true, but I am sick to the core, furious with both of them, and I want to puncture that stupid, patronising persona of his. “I don’t Mika, in fact I’ve always fancied you. You just never thought to ask!”
I meet his gaze innocently, not moving away as he comes up on one elbow, face inches from mine. “And if I ask you now?”
Over his shoulder, I can see my box of treasures, the materials spilling onto the white sand, and the true beginning of my life. Petres and his stupid friends can go to hell, and I’ll get out on my own.
“Then the answer is no.” I relish that second of anger that flames into his eyes, but temper it with a promise that I have no intention of keeping, or I know perfectly well where this will end, “Ask me another day. Oh, and Mika?”
He is still close, smouldering, our arms touching. “What?”
I force myself to stay where I am. “I mean it. Keep me out of your business and we can be together if that’s what you want. Not now though. I have a message for my brother too; you can tell him to stay the hell away from me, and if he tries to use me again, I’ll kill him myself.”
Mika nods thoughtfully, scanning my face for a long moment. “I believe you, Talia.” His expression is unreadable, but when he leans in for a quick kiss I let him press his lips against mine. No more. Just a promise I have no intention of keeping.
When he leaves, I breathe a sigh of relief, wash my mouth out with a bit of precious water, and sit with my head in my hands, shaking. Gradually my heart rate calms, and my breathing slows. You know what hurts most? Not my brother’s treachery, or Mika’s stupid lust, but that neither of them think I’m worth anything. Well that’s going to change, and Mika will probably be dead before he gets to pick up on that promise I made to him. I mean, he heads up a dealership, and those kids are always getting picked off aren’t they?
My knife sits in a leather pouch next to the box of magic. One day I’ll hold the balance of power, and I wonder who will be left to see it.
This story is set in the world of Taming Tigers and The House of Luma.
Daisy White is an author and entrepreneur. She lives on the South Coast, UK, with her family and an assortment of animals.
Visit her website:
[Beyond the Barn
by Laura Wolfe]
A cloud of dust surrounded her, blurring her vision. Brynlei rubbed the debris from her eyes as hoof beats pounded past. She recognized the petite girl who had entered the ring for her 2’6” hunter round in Foxwoode’s final horseshow. Her name was Charlotte, and she rode one of the horses owned by the riding academy—a bay gelding named Twilight. On the other side of the ring, parents, siblings and friends sat on metal bleachers wearing sunglasses and baseball caps to protect their faces from the sun. They watched in near silence, anxious to see the results of their loved-ones’ three-week stay at Foxwoode.
Brynlei had finished riding for the day. Now she relaxed, and looked forward to enjoying the competition as a spectator. Crowds overwhelmed her, though. Being crammed among the throng of people in the stands would have been suffocating. She was thankful for her solitary spot along the fence rail, even with the dust. She rested her arms on the wooden fence lining the ring and took a deep breath.
The thoroughbred gelding and his young rider rounded the bend. Like the rest of Foxwoode’s riders, the pair in the ring was perfectly turned-out, despite the heat; the girl wearing tan breeches, shiny tall boots, and a black hunt coat. Twilight’s mane and tail were braided and his hooves shimmered with black polish. They completed their first line of jumps in ideal form, but after leaping over an angled oxer near the center of the ring, the horse began to pick up speed. Charlotte sat back and pulled on the reins, but the horse’s every stride stretched longer than the one before it.
A frantic energy radiated from the girl, causing Brynlei’s muscles to tense. She could tell from the rigid expression on Charlotte’s face that the horse show nerves had gotten the best of her. It seemed her mount was feeding off of her anxiety. The harder the girl pulled on the reins, the higher Twilight raised his head. The whites of the gelding’s eyes showed, and his tail swished wildly as he continued to stampede across the ring.
“Whoa,” Brynlei called to the strung-out horse, trying to help. Charlotte turned him toward the next line of jumps.
A gust of wind brushed past Brynlei’s cheek and should have provided temporary relief from the heat. Instead, a feeling of anxiousness overcame her. Bracing herself against the fence, she concentrated on staying calm. She’d been diagnosed as a Highly-Sensitive Person or “HSP,” meaning her brain processed sensory stimuli differently than other people’s brains, more deeply. She often absorbed the energy of those around her, or noticed sights, noises, or odors that others missed. Sometimes, she could even sense the spirits of dead people—like when she’d seen her grandma sitting in the living room chair two weeks after she had passed away. Other times, she’d known when something bad was going to happen before it occurred—like the time her brother had been in a car accident and Brynlei had anticipated the crash several hours earlier.
Although Brynlei focused on slowing her breathing, her nerves surged with an electric charge as the pair galloped past. She was sure the frenzied ride was the source of the unease that rippled through her gut.
As much as she yearned for a break from her sensitivities, she’d learned not to ignore the warning signs her body sent to her. Her extra-sensory abilities weren’t all bad; over the last two summers, they’d allowed her to solve two of Foxwoode’s darkest mysteries—cases even the police had failed to untangle. From the moment Brynlei had arrived at the riding academy, she’d perceived a constant threat: eyes lingering on her back, items inexplicably disappearing from her cabin, and shadows dancing behind the trees. It turned out her paranoia had been justified.
“Whoa!” Charlotte’s strained voice jolted Brynlei back to the scene unfolding before her. Brynlei dug her fingernails into the wooden rail as Charlotte guided the galloping horse toward a jump painted to resemble a brick wall. With Twilight’s ever-increasing speed, there was no good distance to be found. The horse left the ground a full two strides before the jump, and Charlotte’s body lagged behind. The girl hadn’t been prepared to take off so early and didn’t have time to lean forward into her two-point position. Still, she managed to hang on, pulling on the reins, as Twilight raced toward the final line of the course.
The horse cleared the vertical, then increased his pace, completing the five-stride line in only four steps. Charlotte circled the horse, finally getting him under control before trotting out the gate. A smattering of applause echoed across from the bleachers. Brynlei clapped too, but mostly out of relief that the chaotic ride was over, and that no one had gotten hurt.
Further down the fence line, Charlotte pulled Twilight to a halt, rubbed him on the neck, and dismounted. A look of defeat flashed in the girl’s pale, blue eyes. Although she was younger and had not been in Brynlei’s riding group this summer, Brynlei knew that—like the rest of them—Charlotte had spent the last three weeks training every day, working from sunrise to dusk in order to improve her riding. It must have been devastating for her to end all of her effort with such a poor showing in the ring. Brynlei’s heart sank as she imagined the girl’s disappointment.
Charlotte’s instructor said a few words to her, patted her shoulder, and then turned to watch her next student enter the ring. The girl led her horse down the narrow path toward the barn, and Brynlei strode toward her, wanting to offer a few words of encouragement—anything to curb the girl’s pain.
As Brynlei approached, a different sensation bristled over her skin. The nervousness and disappointment she’d picked up on earlier had now transformed into fear, except Brynlei wasn’t sure if the terror was emanating from Charlotte or originating within herself. It was a feeling she had experienced numerous times during her time at the riding academy. What was it about this place? Although she was hidden deep in the woods of northern Michigan, she couldn’t seem to escape the dark secrets that swirled through the forest, or the drama of those who roamed Foxwoode’s grounds.
Brynlei respected the sense of foreboding that had overtaken her body. She darted behind a tree to catch her breath. After the events of the last few weeks, she’d been certain she’d solved all of Foxwoode’s mysteries—but maybe there was more she didn’t know. Glancing over her shoulder, she searched for a ghostly figure or a prowling murderer, but found none. She held her breath as footsteps treaded along the path a few paces behind her. Brynlei pressed her back against the tree, trying to make herself invisible.
“There you are! I’ve been looking for you.” Anna rounded the bend, her purple hair and silver nose ring reflecting in the sun. “Want to grab a veggie burger with me? They’re having a cookout over by…”
“Shh!” Brynlei held her finger to her lips and narrowed her eyes at her cabin mate. “Something’s wrong.”
“What?” Anna eyed her. “Dude! Are you serious? Don’t tell me your Spidey Sense is tingling again. Foxwoode only has so many mysterious secrets for you to uncover.”
“Fine.” Brynlei raised her hand, ignoring her friend’s antics. “You don’t have to get involved, but I need to go talk to Charlotte.”
Anna tipped her head forward in acknowledgment. “She had a rough round.”
Brynlei waved Anna away. “Go to the cookout. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.” She couldn’t explain it to Anna, but she needed to get to the bottom of whatever was causing this sudden and awful sensation.
“If you say so.” Anna turned and plodded back toward the show ring.
Brynlei gathered her courage and peered around the tree. A balding man she’d noticed sitting in the stands earlier now lurked outside the barn next to Charlotte. His hands rested on his hips and his gut spilled over the waistband of his shorts. Twilight had already been returned to his stall.
Brynlei tip-toed closer, staying hidden in the tree line next to the path.
“What was that?” The tone of the man’s voice was condescending.
“Sorry. I don’t know what happened.”
“That was embarrassing.” The man shook his head in disgust. “Your grandparents traveled all the way from South Carolina to watch you ride, and that’s what you do?”
Brynlei held her breath, not wanting to believe that the indignant man could be Charlotte’s father.
“Do you know how much money this place costs?” A sheen of sweat coated the man’s face, and his complexion reddened.
“Sorry! Sorry!” the man mocked the girl.
Brynlei clenched her jaw. Liquid dread spread through her veins, weighing her down.
“You’ve disappointed me. And that horse you were riding is a piece of crap.” The anger seemed to be building inside the man, as if he were a wild mustang trapped in a pen, about to burst through.
“No. He’s not!” Charlotte said, defending the horse she’d surely grown to love over the last few weeks. “We were just nervous.”
“Are you talking back?” The man leaned toward his daughter.
Brynlei’s heart pounded. She couldn’t breathe. She wished someone would intervene, but no one else was around. Without thinking, she jumped onto the path and cleared her throat.
The man jerked his head toward Brynlei and stepped back.
“Hi.” Charlotte turned toward her, confused. The two girls were barely acquaintances. Brynlei wasn’t even sure if the younger girl knew her name.
“Good job hanging on in there.” Brynlei forced herself to smile. “I would have fallen on my face.”
The man shook his head and huffed. “We’re not done,” he said, glaring at Brynlei and then at his daughter. “I’ll go get your mother.”
Charlotte nodded. She stared at her feet, her shoulders slumped forward. Brynlei bounded closer and slung her arm around Charlotte, absorbing the heat of her skin.
“Are you okay?”
The girl’s lower lip quivered, but she bit it, seemingly doing everything in her power not to cry.
“We all have bad rounds,” Brynlei said. “It just sucks when it happens during a horse show.”
Charlotte nodded. “I get so nervous, and then Twilight gets nervous because of me.” Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes. “My dad expects me to be perfect all the time. It’s like he takes the fun out of riding.”
Brynlei patted the girl’s arm, commiserating with her and trying to think of a solution. She knew that Foxwoode’s owners, Tom and Debbie Olson, wouldn’t stand for such hurtful behavior from a parent. Their philosophy was to build riders up, not tear them down. She’d seen them put Alyssa’s dad in his place last summer.
“I can ask the Olsons talk to him. They’re really good at dealing with all kinds of personalities.”
“I don’t know.” Charlotte swallowed and stared off into the distance for several seconds. Finally, she shifted her weight and turned toward Brynlei. “I mean, maybe that would help.”
Brynlei nodded, relieved to have Charlotte’s permission, even if it was reluctant. She was anxious to report the incident to Debbie as soon as she could. “Does your mom treat you like that, too?”
“What? Oh, no.” The girl shook her head and chuckled. “She’s kind of the opposite. She thinks everything I do is the best thing in the world.”
Brynlei exhaled, happy Charlotte had at least one parent who encouraged her. She could feel the girl’s mood lighten at the mention of her mom. “Do you want me to help you hose off Twilight?”
Charlotte’s watery eyes latched onto hers, their faded color resembling a cloudless summer sky. “Sure. Thanks, Brynlei.”
It took a minute for Brynlei to adjust to the darkness as they wandered into the shadowy barn aisle. Something moved in her peripheral vision and she stiffened. A black barn cat pounced from the top of hay bale and landed in front of them, meowing. Brynlei exhaled and shook her head at her paranoia. All of the bizarre occurrences of the past three weeks had taken a toll on her nerves.
Charlotte traded out her tall boots for a pair of old tennis shoes, as Brynlei slipped a halter over Twilight’s head. The horse nibbled at their hands, searching for treats as they led him into the wash stall outside. Brynlei smiled at the similarities between this horse and her own camp horse, Jett, how they both exerted such great effort for a single peppermint.
“Sorry, boy. I gave all my treats to Jett already.” Brynlei hooked him to the cross-ties while Charlotte began spraying cool water over his hooves, slowly working her way up his legs.
“Don’t let him fool you. I’ve already given about a million carrots today.”
Brynlei laughed and patted the horse’s muscular neck before speaking again. “You know, I thought your ride was really good, overall.” She glanced at Charlotte. “You have such a natural position. You just need to slow him down a little.”
“Yeah. I tried.” Charlotte kicked at a rock on the ground. “I don’t know why he wasn’t responding.”
“Next time, keep your elbows bent when you pull the reins.” To demonstrate, Brynlei bent her arms, pretending she was holding reins between her fingers. “It gives you more leverage. And try a half-halt a few strides before the jump so he doesn’t keep picking up speed.”
Charlotte’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Anything else?”
“When you round the corners, remember to bend him in, around your inside leg. The curve of his body will force him to slow down.”
“Wow. You’re good at explaining things.” Charlotte stopped spraying her horse and held the hose up, water cascading in front of her. “You should be a riding instructor.”
A feeling of warmth flooded Brynlei’s chest. She peered into Twilight’s saucer-like eyes and saw her own reflection. She could envision herself standing in the middle of the ring where Miss Jill had stood, critiquing the riders on their position, creating exercises for them, and giving them advice. She was confident she could do it, and even excel at the position if given the opportunity. Foxwoode would hire her if she won the Top Rider Award. But now she wondered if she’d done enough to earn it this summer, or if her efforts to uncover the camp’s dark secrets had been too much of a distraction.
“There you are, honey.” A woman with a blonde bob neared the wash stall, flanked by an elderly couple wearing khaki pants and brightly-colored shirts. “Great job!”
“That was wonderful,” said the gray-haired woman.
“Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Grandma.”
Brynlei took the hose from Charlotte, so she could hug her family. In the distance, Charlotte’s dad moped under the shade of a tree, his sweat-stained back turned toward them.
“This is my mom and my grandparents,” Charlotte said, pointing. “This is Brynlei.”
“Nice to meet you,” Charlotte’s mom said, grinning.
Brynlei shook hands with them. Their energy was positive and bright, not at all like the toxic vibe she’d gotten from Charlotte’s dad. She wondered how such opposite people had ended up together. At least she felt reassured that the girl was safe now. And Brynlei would make a point to alert Debbie of the earlier conversation.
“I need to get back to the cookout.” Brynlei motioned in the direction of the show ring and wondered if her own parents were looking for her. Anna was probably saving her a plate of food. She said goodbye and jogged down the dusty path.
Soon, the campers would line up in front of the bleachers, and Tom and Debbie Olson would announce the winner of the coveted Top Rider Award. With all of the drama that had followed her, Brynlei didn’t know what her chances of winning were. But she knew—if nothing else—that she’d been true to herself. Time and time again, she’d listened to her conscience and had tried to do the right thing. She and Jett had performed their best today. Yet, last summer, it hadn’t been enough. At the risk of getting her hopes up, she needed to be ready, just in case. An hour from now, the Olsons would announce the winner, and Brynlei would finally have her answer.
This story is set in the world of the Dark Horse series.
Laura Wolfe is a lover of animals and nature who lives in Michigan with her husband, son, daughter, and rescue dog. Her YA mystery, Trail of Secrets (Dark Horse, Book One), was named as a Finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards—First Novel category.
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From fantasy and steampunk, to mystery and thriller, to contemporary social issue and romance, the authors in this book have all written novels that feature strong girls as protagonists. These girls solve their problems using their brains, skills, reason, courage, and resiliency. In other words, they are kick ass girls, sometimes without literally kicking ass. They are heroines. We wanted to find a way to celebrate these girls because they have the qualities that make women leaders in all aspects of life. And what better way for writers to do that than through writing! The following pages contain short stories starring the heroines—or other characters— from the worlds depicted in our novels. They are the Kick Ass Girls of Fire and Ice YA Books. Don’t be afraid to be a kick ass girl. Read on!